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.