Driven: 2013 Ford Escape

The Ford Escape helped define the compact crossover when it debuted at the dawn of the millennium, and although it had become uncompetitive in recent years, Ford's marketing muscle kept it at or near the top of the sales charts. Now, the Escape has been redesigned, very much in the manner of Mulally-era Fords. That means: sleek new styling with lots of surface development; integration with European- and Asian-market models; lots of high-tech features; seriously upgraded interiors; and multiple engine choices, with EcoBoost playing a major role.

The U.S. Escape is now aligned with the European Ford Kuga, and its styling bears a family resemblance to the Fiesta, the Focus, and the new Fusion. It's a far more athletic look, but the rising beltline and smaller windows mean that visibility suffers compared with its plainer, boxier predecessor. Additionally, the steeply raked windshield makes for an extra-large dashboard; in fact, the windshield almost seems taller than it is wide (it's not), and Ford elected to use wipers that face each other.

The exterior kept nothing from the previous edition, and the same is true of the interior. That's OK, since the old Escape's plastic-lined cabin had little worth keeping. The new interior looks a lot more expensive, particularly in top-spec Titanium trim, like my test example. There's lots of shiny plastic trim, which looks better than it sounds and is set off with brushed-metal bits. Touch points are soft. The extra-large dashboard conveys a minivan-like feeling from behind the wheel, but the wheel itself is well shaped and sporty. Surprisingly, the Titanium's upholstery is a mix of leather and cloth; full leather is optional. I found seat comfort to be quite good over a marathon, ten-hour day of driving. The rear seat has adequate headroom and legroom, and rear-seat passengers benefit from reclining seatbacks, A/C vents, a power outlet, and the mega-size sunroof -- although the latter is a pricey, $1395 option. The back seat isn't as spacious as that of a Honda CR-V, however, and the seat cushion is low. That low cushion does allow the rear seatbacks to fold flat in one easy motion, and cargo space is quite good. One trick feature on the new Escape is that the power rear hatch can be opened just by waving your foot back and forth under the rear bumper. Theoretically, this is a boon if you approach the hatch with your hands full, but the system can be a little fussy in practice.

Other new technology is more successful, although much of it is restricted to the top two trim levels. The backup camera is effective (and necessary); unfortunately it's one of the items not available on the S and SE. Additional electronic helpers include a blind-spot warning system, cross-traffic alert, and Ford's trick automatic parking system. Navigation, of course, is optional (for a reasonable $795). SYNC is available on all models, and the MyFord Touch interface can be had on all but the base car. Despite criticism of the system, Ford obviously has decided that its modern look trumps the touch-screen's inherent functional disadvantages. Indeed, the graphics are the best in the auto industry, but there are just too many functions that have been absorbed into the touch-screen. Furthermore, those touch spots are too small, requiring too much eyes-away-from-the-road concentration.

The other Ford-favorite technology that gets heavy play here is EcoBoost. The Escape offers three four-cylinder engines (the V-6 and the hybrid are no more), and two of the three combine direct injection and turbocharging. The only one that doesn't, a 2.5-liter 168-hp unit, is strictly a price-leader that is available with front-wheel drive only. The two EcoBoost offerings are a 178-hp 1.6-liter and a 2.0-liter with 240 hp. The Titanium comes standard with the larger engine, which is optional ($1095) on the midlevel SE and SEL. All three engines use a six-speed automatic, and that gearbox in combination with the 2.0-liter makes a very pleasant powertrain. Unlike so many modern automatics, this six-speed does not hang on desperately to higher gears but instead is perfectly willing to downshift to keep things moving along. Of course, the 2.0-liter's hearty 270 pound-feet of torque is the key ingredient in the Escape's brisk acceleration. There's only a half-beat of hesitation before the boost comes on and the Escape zooms ahead; it gets from 50 to 80 mph in no time, which was most welcome in the all-too-brief passing zones in New York's Adirondack mountains. The only downside was the 25-mpg indicated average I saw on my 600-mile round trip. (With all-wheel drive, the 2.0-liter is EPA rated at 28 mpg on the highway and 21 mpg in the city.)

The zippy powertrain goes a long way toward making the Escape more fun to drive than the compact crossover norm, but one must also credit the highly capable chassis. The car eagerly charged through the bumpy, fast sweepers in the mountains; and felt alert and responsive on the narrow parkways downstate. This crossover is based on the excellent Focus platform, and that has paid obviously dividends. It's so good, one can only imagine how awesome a lighter, lower station wagon on this chassis would be.

Speaking of paying dividends, with the base-model Escape having upped its price by more than $1000, and the top-of-the-line Titanium model starting at better than $30,000, the new Escape appears to have been developed with an eye toward corporate profitability as well. That shouldn't be too surprising, however, since building more desirable vehicles that command higher prices is pretty much what the Mulally era at Ford has been all about.

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