The Escape's suspension soaked up all manner of road irregularities and even some off-road weirdness. During our annual trek to the Mounds off-road recreation area north of Detroit, we tested the Escape and found it confidence-inspiring over rough and muddy terrain. The Control Trac II four-wheel-drive system worked well for us off the pavement, despite its lack of a low range. The setup locks the rear axle into engagement when the selector dial is set to "4x4 On," and through a winter of traversing the occasional icy road, the Escape never left us stuck. One logbook comment read: "The ride and handling are fine, with aspects of nimbleness and sportiness and the confidence to go over crunchy pavement without worry or penalty." We also discovered that it can tow heavy loads (up to its own weight of 3500 pounds) when Gillies used the Escape to trailer one of his racing cars: "It tows quite brilliantly (mind you, it guzzles gasoline; I managed only 12 mpg)." Although the four-wheel-drive version loses some fuel efficiency compared with the front-wheel-drive version, we recorded 19 mpg over the long haul, which is not bad for what was frequently a fully loaded vehicle.
The whole--or, in this case, the vehicle--is only as good as the sum of its parts, and as Shania Twain might say, some of our Escape's parts didn't impress us much. Our logbook was littered with complaints about the interior: "You can see the evidence of serious cost-cutting in here," and, "While I like the primary instrument display, the center console and major controls are unhandsome and cheap-looking." You never get a second chance to make a first impression, and hard plastic, which covers the instrument and door panels, is the automotive equivalent of sweaty armpits. But inexpensive plastic isn't the worst sin an inexpensive vehicle can commit. In a rare moment of contextual forgiveness, copy editor Matt Phenix overlooked the shiny polymer and stated: "Interior packaging is quite splendid, actually." The Escape's biggest fan was contributor Ronald Ahrens, who wrote the following love letter: "What an outstanding example of automotive design! There's nothing revolutionary in overall design and nothing deserving of hyperbole. It's just that traditional modes are brilliantly used."
Nontraditional modes, such as the in-dash CD changer, were not so brilliantly used. Temperamental at times, the optional system frequently refused to return our music collection. One logbook commentator overcame the malfunctioning unit by trying his hand at plastic surgery: "CDs got stuck in CD player. They had to be pried out with a knife." Better to stick with the standard audio system, which includes a single-disc CD player.
Except for the rare times when the CD player was under the knife, no one ever accused the Escape of being too quiet. From what some described as "excessive wind noise" to an engine that was "noisy under even partial throttle," there was never a shortage of aural feedback to keep us entertained. Vibrations that made their way into the cabin, however, seemed to have a way of manifesting themselves as nerve-shattering rattles, but, in the Escape's defense, those irritants would usually manifest themselves on the more pocked sections of Michigan's back roads. By the 30,000-mile mark, however, the Escape had some severe creakin' and rattlin' goin' on during acceleration and braking. The service techs adjusted all the door strikers in an attempt to quiet the beast, but the dashboard continued to buzz like a coke-addled cicada.
The Escape was hardly what we'd call hassle-free, but at least its ailments were remedied under warranty. At its 15,000-mile scheduled maintenance, the master brake cylinder was found to be leaking fluid and had to be replaced. At 24,000 miles, the passenger's-side rear interior door handle lost a retaining bracket and was repaired at no cost. Not so forgivable was the Escape's final transgression, which occurred near the end of our year-long test: The transmission foundered, requiring replacement of the entire transaxle. With 6000 miles remaining on the powertrain warranty, the replacement was covered; we never saw a parts bill, but at 9.6 hours, the $75-an-hour labor bill alone would have run $720 were it not for the guarantee.
Although it stumbled out of the blocks and didn't impress us with long-term reliability, the Escape has somehow, well, escaped what could have been a disastrous introduction for an all-new vehicle. In the end, the Escape proves that sometimes the package is as important as the product.