When the Ford Escape first debuted a year into the 21st century, it had a few Y2K bugs. Ford's first little SUV was plagued with production miscues and recalls, hindering the launch of an otherwise appealing machine. Over the past several years, those issues have been sorted out, allowing consumers to feel confident about this appealing compact package, distinguished among so-called sport/cutes with an available V-6 and an agile driving character. A midlife freshening and the segment's first hybrid model for 2005 have kept the Escape in the shopping spotlight, even in the face of newer competitors.
For 2005, the Escape received new headlights and fascias, but these slight changes can't disguise the fact that this basic design is now five production-years old. Despite its age, the Escape is still attractive and maintains its family resemblance with the larger Explorer. Its part-cute, part-tough styling is just inoffensive enough to appeal to a wide demographic. The base Escape still trots on small 15-inch steel wheels, however, while 16-inch wheels are becoming the segment norm. Four new paint colors--Sonic Blue, Norsea Blue, Silver Metallic, and Titanium Green--work to give some variety to the masses of Escapes cruising the roadways.
The Escape has an effective, if mediocre, interior. All surfaces are smooth, and every control is easy to read and well within reach of smaller drivers. However, the revised "modern-faced" gauge cluster looks cheap and toylike. The easy-to-use buttons of the center console look dated and are oversized in relation to their markings. The Escape's seats are arguably overstuffed and too shallow to offer good thigh support to tall drivers, traits shared with other older Ford designs such as the Focus. This interior could be very nice with a little more attention to detail, such as reduced panel gaps.
Ford has done wonders with the F-150, but this generation Escape heralds from a previous design era, with cost cutting readily apparent. Behind the rear seats is 29 cubic feet of open storage space, and folding the rear seatbacks flat opens 66 cubic feet. Both numbers are on par with those of the Toyota RAV4, but fall just shy of the Honda CR-V's.
Like Jeep Liberty and Chevrolet Equinox , the Escape makes you pay extra for side airbags. And don't bother asking about electronic stability control; it isn't even offered. The front airbags, at least, are an advanced design with variable deployment force. The optional front-side and front- and rear-side curtain airbags are desirable options. Ford's "Safety Canopy" system, borrowed from the Explorer, uses a sensor to detect when a rollover is imminent, and the side curtain airbags are deployed before side impact occurs. This commitment to safety is diminished by the absence of stability control, which would reduce the risk of rollover accidents, rather than only reduce their consequences.
For 2005, Ford made a number of major powertrain changes under the skin of its small SUV. Getting the most buzz is the new hybrid model--the first gas/electric SUV to reach the market. Like the popular Toyota Prius, the Escape is a "full hybrid," meaning it can run solely on electricity, reaching speeds over 20 mph, and then provide additional boost to the gasoline engine thereafter. The Escape uses a 2.3-liter inline-four matched to a 70kW (equivalent to 94 horsepower) electric motor, with a continuously variable transmission sending the resulting power to the drive wheels. Unlike the AWD-only Mercury Mariner hybrid, the Escape version is available in all- or front-wheel drive. Despite the added weight of batteries, the Escape's 155-horsepower hybrid system provides reasonable acceleration while sipping gasoline at 36 mpg in the city and 31 on the highway. All-wheel-drive V-6 models, by comparison, make 200 horses and achieve 18/22 mpg, while four-cylinder models make 153 horses and get 24/29 mpg.
The big news for frugal Escape buyers is a new 2.3-liter four-cylinder gasoline engine. Producing 153 horsepower, the engine betters the outgoing Zetec powerplant by more than 20 ponies, has a broader torque curve for mid-range power, and is slightly quieter in the process. The inline-four is bundled with a five-speed manual transmission; we would recommend the optional automatic trans, as poor shifter feel, an awkward clutch engagement point, and proneness to wheel-spin minimize the fun of manual shifting. The preferred engine choice is the admittedly noisy 3.0-liter V-6, which will tow up to 3,500 pounds. While real-world performance reveals other six-cylinder SUVs in its class standout for acceleration, the competitively priced V-6 Escape offers an appealing alternative to the less torquey four-cylinder competition, as well as the Escape's own tepid I-4.
A V-6-equipped Escape is a surprisingly fun and refined sport/cute. While the four-cylinder is slightly lighter, it lacks power and can tow only 1,500 pounds. The hybrid seems tempting, but its high-tech drivetrain brings inherent compromises, such as the variable electric assistance being hindered by loads, such as driving up long hills. The more muscular Duratec 30 V-6 provides adequate acceleration, respectable towing capacity, and a drivability factor superior to that of the other two engines. So equipped, the Escape feels like a nice trade-off between the nimble handling of a car and the space and outward visibility of an SUV. While the tall body has moderate lean through turns, the Escape rotates controllably and, indeed, enthusiastically through turns, making it more fun to drive on curvy roads than most peers. Wind and road noise are apparent, joining in with the engine's high volume at full throttle.
A solid compact sport/ute player with a respectable value story, the Escape neither blows away the competition, nor falls too far behind. In V-6 form, it offers a good balance of sport and utility, and with a better interior and improved engine, it would be tough to beat. But alas, the Escape falls mid-pack in categories such as cabin refinement, gas mileage, cargo space and towing capacity. For green-minded shoppers who opt for the hybrid version, be aware that you'll have to spend years saving money on gas to make up for the premium you paid to get the hybrid version.
A compact utility with a sporting demeanor, the Escape is a capable urban runner with a penchant for weekend adventures.
Good 4WD system Freshened appearance Hybrid gets great mileage
Showing age inside and out Engine noise, performance Cool hybrid limited by weight, price
A slight freshening of the bumpers and lights, new colors, a revised gauge cluster, a new four-cylinder engine and four-wheel drive system, and a hybrid model round out the changes for 2005.
Spring for the V-6 engine, and don't forget the tow package if hauling is in your future. The optional side and head curtain airbags are recommended.