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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

The Escape is quite a nice vehicle for just over $20K. It looks pretty good and goes down the road well. Obviously, Ford isn't going to sell very many Escape models with the manual transmission. The fact that Ford now offers a six-speed automatic makes the standard manual transmission fitted to our test car even more pointless. Still, the three-pedal setup does average 2 mpg more on the EPA city cycle. I stand by Phil's point that a small wagon is a better option than a small SUV, but Americans like to sit up higher and the Escape is a good offering in the segment.

Marc Noordeloos, Road Test Editor

The base Escape is a lot of vehicle for less than $21,000. It's cool that Ford offers a stick shift, but unfortunately it's not a very good one. The stiff, short-travel clutch pedal felt especially strange at the end of a workday during which I had driven our Four Seasons Volkswagen Jetta TDI (one of the smoothest-driving cars I've ever piloted). On the other hand, the clutch didn't feel nearly so weird compared with the Caterham R400 Superlight (which I also drove recently), which has a clutch-pedal travel of about two inches or so.

The Escape rides nicely and handles well, although the steering feels pretty numb. The very basic interior looks and feels better than those of earlier Escapes, but you won't be fooled into thinking you're in a $40,000 vehicle.

One major quibble: the first time I drove this Escape, I could not for the life of me get the rear hatch to open ... not with the fob, not with the door handle, nothing. Luckily, the problem had corrected itself by the time I actually had things to load into the cargo compartment.

Rusty Blackwell, Copy Editor

Base Price (with destination): $20,410Price as tested: $20,860

Options: Floor Mats - $55Cargo Package - $395

Fuel Economy: 22 / 28 / 25 mpg (city/hwy/combined)

Engine: Size: 2.5L DOHC I-4HP: 171 HP @ 6000 rpmTorque: 171 lb-ft @ 4500 rpm

Transmission: 5-Speed Manual

Weight: 3,299 lb

Wheel/Tire Info: - 16-inch aluminum (size) - P235/70R16