The road from Stinson Beach to the top of Mt. Tamalpais is a classic California hill-climb, a narrow, twisting, dipping, heaving, unpredictable ribbon of off-camber asphalt that tests the mettle of car, driver, and, especially, passenger. Ford Escape chief engineer Eric Loeffler, riding shotgun in an all-wheel-drive 2013 Escape SE, seems unfazed. I'm taking the SUV to the edges of its performance envelope, revving the 1.6-liter turbo four to its 6375-rpm redline, diving into corners, braking without equivocation, and creating my own private racing lines where the road opens up into broad sweepers. In other words, driving exactly unlike 99 percent of Escape owners will ever drive. Loeffler, though, needs to be back at his Fisherman's Wharf hotel by 5 o'clock so that he can get to the San Francisco airport. He's heading to China, where he's working on the Escape's identical twin, the Ford Kuga, which will be sold there for the first time. I am an obliging chauffeur, a willing participant in Ford's global product-expansion plans.
In the midst of this spectacularly sunny, late-afternoon drive, a memory surfaces of a similar drive, on the same Marin County roads, in the first-generation Ford Escape. On that day in May 2000, another journalist and I split the driving duties while a different Ford Engineer unhelpfully complained of motion sickness from the rear seat, a perch she had actively sought and one that we had not encouraged be occupied. After ditching her at the first available opportunity, we continued our drive to Bodega Bay unimpeded. I then joined the chorus of reviewers who ordained the Escape the new gold standard for driving dynamics among small SUVs.
The overall worthiness of that original Escape, a vehicle that didn't receive a significant freshening until 2008 and new powertrains in 2009, bore fruit for Ford both in sales and image. Not only was the Escape the first Ford vehicle to be offered with a hybrid powertrain in an era when America was falling in love with the Toyota Prius, Ford moved more than 2 million of them over its life span. In fact, 2011 was the Escape's best year ever, with an incredible 254,293 units sold.
The completely redone 2013 Escape is certainly capable of filling its predecessor's big shoes, partly because it's based on Ford's excellent global C1 platform, which also underpins the Focus. So the basic ingredients of good driving dynamics -- crisp and precise steering, responsive brakes (the same ones that will be used on the upcoming, high-performance Focus ST), smooth and energetic engines, and a chassis tuned equally for athleticism and comfort -- are present and accounted for. The Escape is the first American Ford to use the new 1.6-liter EcoBoost, which produces 178 hp and 184 lb-ft of torque while providing 33 mpg on the highway, bettering the old Escape Hybrid's highway number by 2 mpg. "As you know, we will do other variants on the C1 platform with hybrid and electric powertrains," points out Loeffler, when asked why the Escape Hybrid doesn't return. The 1.6-liter sounds great at high revs and delivers strong linear power, with not a wisp of econocar four-banger about it. The 2.0-liter, for its part, is also full of high-revving character and churns out 240 hp and 270 lb-ft of torque. No one will miss the V-6. Some drivers might wonder, though, why there are no shift paddles, or at least why the manual shift function is so difficult to use: you have to crook your elbow to hit the up-and-down toggle switch on the left side of the gearshift lever.
Volume seller that the Escape is, Ford felt obliged to offer a price-leader, front-wheel-drive base model, the $23,295 S. It's saddled with the old 2.5-liter four-cylinder, which makes 168 hp and 167 lb-ft of torque. Give us EcoBoost, please. All engines are mated to a six-speed automatic, though, thankfully not the Focus's inferior twin-clutch box. Besides the S model, the Escape is offered as the $25,895 SE and the $28,695 SEL, which can be equipped with either EcoBoost engine, and the top-of-the-line, $31,195 Titanium, which gets only the 2.0-liter. Those three trim levels are all available with either front- or all-wheel drive. Ford's so-called "Curve Control" anti-skid system that debuted on the Explorer is also available.
The Escape rides well, whether it's on the SE model's seventeen-inch wheels or the Titanium model's nineteen-inchers. This is a particular point of pride to Loeffler, who claims that Ford now tries to inculcate a common DNA across models and even trim levels. In other words, an Escape with a more powerful engine and larger tires should ride and handle similarly to one with a less powerful engine and smaller tires. Along the same lines, a Focus owner ought to conclude that the Escape feels familiar from behind the wheel. Of course, this sort of engineering commonality has been business as usual at carmakers like BMW for eons. Better late than never, we suppose.
The innnovative exterior design of the Vertrek concept that debuted at the 2011 Detroit auto show was supposed to portend a stunning production Escape, but what we ended up with is an overstyled, underwhelming looking vehicle that is destined to blend unobtrusively into the traffic stream. Too bad. The Escape's interior, on the other hand, represents a sea change from the harsh terrain of hard plastics that plagued the old vehicle, with a modern design theme that will be familiar to anyone who's ever been in a new Focus. The center stack protrudes a bit too much, but at least it looks and feels good, and the turquoise needles in the speedometer and tach are a nice touch.
The optional sport seats are also superb. "We've brought seat engineering back in-house [from suppliers] over the past four or five years," Loeffler tells us. The front seatbacks are scalloped to provide more rear knee room, rear leg and foot room are generous, and the rear seatbacks recline. The standard seats, which lack the sport seats' aggressive bolstering, are also good. It's easy to fold the rear seats to create a nearly flat cargo floor; it has only a three-degree incline. There's 34.3 cubic feet of cargo space behind the rear seats and 68.1 cubic feet if they are folded. Approach the vehicle's rear hatch with your hands full, kick your foot under the rear bumper, and an optional motion-detection system unlocks and raises the tailgate. Kick again to reverse the procedure. Active park assist and blind spot detection, practically unheard of in the Escape's price class, are available.
At the top of that attractive center stack we find the new and improved My Ford Touch screen to control the stereo, navigation, and climate control systems. It is indeed better than the much-maligned old system, and fingertip touches to the screen are more likely to result in affirmative responses than they were before, but the system remains fussy and finicky. The good news is that the optional Sony stereo is sensational, and the My Ford Touch display screen itself is bright and crisp, with attractive fonts.
Despite our quibbles about the Escape, Loeffler and his team are rightfully proud of it. Like the Focus, the 2013 Escape is one of the best new Fords of the past five years, a true player on the global stage, far more impressive than the Edge or the Explorer, neither of which you can imagine playing anywhere other than Peoria.