2009 Ford Escape XLS FWD

This stripped-down Ford Escape is so far from the average Escape/Mariner/Tribute you see on the roads, it's almost funny. I'd love to know what the take rate for this manual transmission is. The shifts aren't particularly rewarding, since the throws are pretty vague. The four-cylinder engine doesn't feel much more responsive with a five-speed manual than it does with an automatic, either.

While this particular Escape is clearly a no-frills model, it doesn't really feel like a penalty box from behind the wheel. The interior is pretty basic, but it doesn't feel horribly cheap, especially given the reasonable $20,000 sticker price. The fan made a bit too much noise when I sent the heat toward the floorboards instead of my face, but that isn't a deal breaker.

I still prefer the Escape/Mariner/Tribute to most of the other small sport-utes on the market, but this segment makes almost no sense to me. We all know a decent wagon or hatch would do virtually everything these small SUVs do ... well, except sell to American drivers. For some reason, Americans prefer the slower, heavier, and worse-handling SUVs to car-based vehicles that handle better, burn less fuel, and look better.

Phil Floraday, Senior Online Editor

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