The was off to a rocky start before setting even one of its all-terrain tires on a dirt road. That is, the latest sport-utility from the Ford Motor Company was baptized by a forthright–if somewhat embarrassing–procession of recalls. At the time of the ‘s debut, Ford was embroiled in the Firestone tire debacle, so the company wasn’t about to take any chances regarding potential mechanical failure of another high-volume product. The official list of gremlins included cracked plastic on part of the cruise-control servo, a damaged or incorrectly installed steering-wheel fastener, a fractured ball socket in the windshield-wiper linkage, four-wheel-drive rear hubs mistakenly assembled on two-wheel-drive models, and damaged O-ring seals near the fuel filter.
While putting customers on a first-name basis with the service technician may not be the best way to launch a new product, the alternative was considerably less attractive. To illustrate a worst-case scenario, imagine you’re driving home from work in the rain and your wiper blades stop functioning. You try to cancel the cruise control, but the throttle kicks the car back up to speed. Now quite concerned, you slam the brakes, and the rear end breaks loose, as do the rear hub assemblies. Frantically trying to regain control, your white-knuckled hands inadvertently yank the steering wheel from the steering column. As you crash at full speed into the Ford dealership next to the freeway, sparks igniting the leaky fuel-filter line, your final thought is something like: “I wish I’d checked out the new or .”
So we welcomed the toreador red, four-wheel-drive Escape XLT V-6 to our Four Seasons fleet with a wary eye, as if we were simultaneously evaluating the vehicle and somehow contributing to its final stages of research and development.
But despite a less-than-stellar launch, the Escape quickly managed to become America’s bestselling mini-ute, far outpacing its mechanical twin, the Mazda Tribute (they’re both built at Ford’s plant in Kansas City, Missouri). Ford’s entry into the miniature-SUV realm had a reasonable $18,160 base price. However, if you wanted to drive with any sense of urgency, as we usually do, you could opt out of the 2.0-liter, 130-horsepower Zetec in-line four-cylinder and into the 3.0-liter, -horsepower Duratec V-6 ($1480), an engine that was borrowed from the . The V-6 is incidentally the most powerful engine in this class, and it gets the 3500-pound Escape to 60 mph from a standstill in nine seconds. We also selected the upgraded MACH Audio system with in-dash six-disc CD changer, a moonroof, and side air bags, bringing the as-tested price to $24,560. And although wheel-hub separation didn’t worry us (four-wheel-drive models were unaffected by that particular recall), exploding tires did. Just to be on the safe side, we switched the standard Firestone Wilderness AT tires for a set of Good-year Fortera HLs.
It’s only natural to familiarize oneself with a new vehicle by trying to define it. Executive editor Mark Gillies summed up the Escape with one sentence: “It’s a well-executed four-wheel-drive station wagon with a high seating position.” Adding to that summary, Gillies went on: “Of all the trucks I’ve driven, this has the best linearity of steering and brakes and actually handles with more aplomb than a number of cars.” Unit-body construction and a fully independent suspension give the Escape more of a carlike feel than competitors such as the Jeep Liberty or the , and comparisons were plentiful. Motor gopher Tony Quiroga pitted the Escape against his personal Xterra: “Quick inputs are rewarded with quick results, unlike the Nissan, which deals with quick inputs through its bureaucracy of a suspension.”
The Escape‘s suspension soaked up all manner of road irregularities and even some off-road weirdness. During our annual trek to the Mounds off-road recreation area north of Detroit, we tested the Escape and found it confidence-inspiring over rough and muddy terrain. The Control Trac II four-wheel-drive system worked well for us off the pavement, despite its lack of a low range. The setup locks the rear axle into engagement when the selector dial is set to “4×4 On,” and through a winter of traversing the occasional icy road, the Escape never left us stuck. One logbook comment read: “The ride and handling are fine, with aspects of nimbleness and sportiness and the confidence to go over crunchy pavement without worry or penalty.” We also discovered that it can tow heavy loads (up to its own weight of 3500 pounds) when Gillies used the Escape to trailer one of his racing cars: “It tows quite brilliantly (mind you, it guzzles gasoline; I managed only 12 mpg).” Although the four-wheel-drive version loses some fuel efficiency compared with the front-wheel-drive version, we recorded 19 mpg over the long haul, which is not bad for what was frequently a fully loaded vehicle.
The whole–or, in this case, the vehicle–is only as good as the sum of its parts, and as Shania Twain might say, some of our Escape’s parts didn’t impress us much. Our logbook was littered with complaints about the interior: “You can see the evidence of serious cost-cutting in here,” and, “While I like the primary instrument display, the center console and major controls are unhandsome and cheap-looking.” You never get a second chance to make a first impression, and hard plastic, which covers the instrument and door panels, is the automotive equivalent of sweaty armpits. But inexpensive plastic isn’t the worst sin an inexpensive vehicle can commit. In a rare moment of contextual forgiveness, copy editor Matt Phenix overlooked the shiny polymer and stated: “Interior packaging is quite splendid, actually.” The Escape’s biggest fan was contributor Ronald Ahrens, who wrote the following love letter: “What an outstanding example of automotive design! There’s nothing revolutionary in overall design and nothing deserving of hyperbole. It’s just that traditional modes are brilliantly used.”
Nontraditional modes, such as the in-dash CD changer, were not so brilliantly used. Temperamental at times, the optional system frequently refused to return our music collection. One logbook commentator overcame the malfunctioning unit by trying his hand at plastic surgery: “CDs got stuck in CD player. They had to be pried out with a knife.” Better to stick with the standard audio system, which includes a single-disc CD player.
Except for the rare times when the CD player was under the knife, no one ever accused the Escape of being too quiet. From what some described as “excessive wind noise” to an engine that was “noisy under even partial throttle,” there was never a shortage of aural feedback to keep us entertained. Vibrations that made their way into the cabin, however, seemed to have a way of manifesting themselves as nerve-shattering rattles, but, in the Escape’s defense, those irritants would usually manifest themselves on the more pocked sections of Michigan’s back roads. By the 30,000-mile mark, however, the Escape had some severe creakin’ and rattlin’ goin’ on during acceleration and braking. The service techs adjusted all the door strikers in an attempt to quiet the beast, but the dashboard continued to buzz like a coke-addled cicada.
The Escape was hardly what we’d call hassle-free, but at least its ailments were remedied under warranty. At its 15,000-mile scheduled maintenance, the master brake cylinder was found to be leaking fluid and had to be replaced. At 24,000 miles, the passenger’s-side rear interior door handle lost a retaining bracket and was repaired at no cost. Not so forgivable was the Escape’s final transgression, which occurred near the end of our year-long test: The transmission foundered, requiring replacement of the entire transaxle. With 6000 miles remaining on the powertrain warranty, the replacement was covered; we never saw a parts bill, but at 9.6 hours, the $75-an-hour labor bill alone would have run $720 were it not for the guarantee.
Although it stumbled out of the blocks and didn’t impress us with long-term reliability, the Escape has somehow, well, escaped what could have been a disastrous introduction for an all-new vehicle. In the end, the Escape proves that sometimes the package is as important as the product.