The 2001 Ford Escape was off to a rocky start before setting even one of its all-terrain tires on a dirt road. That is, the latest sport-utility from the Ford Motor Company was baptized by a forthright--if somewhat embarrassing--procession of recalls. At the time of the Escape's debut, Ford was embroiled in the Firestone tire debacle, so the company wasn't about to take any chances regarding potential mechanical failure of another high-volume product. The official list of gremlins included cracked plastic on part of the cruise-control servo, a damaged or incorrectly installed steering-wheel fastener, a fractured ball socket in the windshield-wiper linkage, four-wheel-drive rear hubs mistakenly assembled on two-wheel-drive models, and damaged O-ring seals near the fuel filter.
While putting customers on a first-name basis with the service technician may not be the best way to launch a new product, the alternative was considerably less attractive. To illustrate a worst-case scenario, imagine you're driving home from work in the rain and your wiper blades stop functioning. You try to cancel the cruise control, but the throttle kicks the car back up to speed. Now quite concerned, you slam the brakes, and the rear end breaks loose, as do the rear hub assemblies. Frantically trying to regain control, your white-knuckled hands inadvertently yank the steering wheel from the steering column. As you crash at full speed into the Ford dealership next to the freeway, sparks igniting the leaky fuel-filter line, your final thought is something like: "I wish I'd checked out the new Honda CR-V or Toyota RAV4."
So we welcomed the toreador red, four-wheel-drive Escape XLT V-6 to our Four Seasons fleet with a wary eye, as if we were simultaneously evaluating the vehicle and somehow contributing to its final stages of research and development.
But despite a less-than-stellar launch, the Escape quickly managed to become America's bestselling mini-ute, far outpacing its mechanical twin, the Mazda Tribute (they're both built at Ford's plant in Kansas City, Missouri). Ford's entry into the miniature-SUV realm had a reasonable $18,160 base price. However, if you wanted to drive with any sense of urgency, as we usually do, you could opt out of the 2.0-liter, 130-horsepower Zetec in-line four-cylinder and into the 3.0-liter, 200-horsepower Duratec V-6 ($1480), an engine that was borrowed from the Taurus. The V-6 is incidentally the most powerful engine in this class, and it gets the 3500-pound Escape to 60 mph from a standstill in nine seconds. We also selected the upgraded MACH Audio system with in-dash six-disc CD changer, a moonroof, and side air bags, bringing the as-tested price to $24,560. And although wheel-hub separation didn't worry us (four-wheel-drive models were unaffected by that particular recall), exploding tires did. Just to be on the safe side, we switched the standard Firestone Wilderness AT tires for a set of Good-year Fortera HLs.
It's only natural to familiarize oneself with a new vehicle by trying to define it. Executive editor Mark Gillies summed up the Escape with one sentence: "It's a well-executed four-wheel-drive station wagon with a high seating position." Adding to that summary, Gillies went on: "Of all the trucks I've driven, this has the best linearity of steering and brakes and actually handles with more aplomb than a number of cars." Unit-body construction and a fully independent suspension give the Escape more of a carlike feel than competitors such as the Jeep Liberty or the Nissan Xterra, and comparisons were plentiful. Motor gopher Tony Quiroga pitted the Escape against his personal Xterra: "Quick inputs are rewarded with quick results, unlike the Nissan, which deals with quick inputs through its bureaucracy of a suspension."