Ford Escape — Taking a new direction

By Jim Meachen and Al Vinikour

The Ford Escape has very neatly "escaped" its 11-year boxy SUV persona with a new-generation vehicle featuring three four-cylinder engines including two performance-oriented fuel-efficient EcoBoost powerplants; a new athletic, aerodynamic look for the 2013 model year; and  a well controlled driving demeanor that belies its SUV stance.

The transformation is astounding, and we would say long overdue — long overdue if it wasn't for the outgoing Escape's phonemail sales success.

Hard to believe, but the Escape has maintained its lofty status as one of the best-selling SUVs in the country without major changes right up to its last day of production. It's amazing that the aging Escape outsold the Honda CR-V, the sales champ of recent years, in 2011 with more than 254,000 copies reaching customer's hands. Even through the first four months of 2012, the Escape sold nearly 76,000 units, beating all competitors except the restyled CR-V.

The 2013 Escape promises enormous improvements — and it delivers.

The new Escape is a world car — as it seems many are these days — based on the Ford Kuga, a European compact crossover. Both share a platform with the current Ford Focus. The Escape takes on the new Ford family sculpted styling that graces the Focus and the smaller Fiesta. It's handsome from all angles and 180 degrees from the traditional square SUV look that has lived on the Escape since its inception in 2001.

The sleeker design is nearly 10 percent more aerodynamic than the outgoing model, Ford says. An active grille shutter system reduces wind resistance. Grille slats stay open when extra engine cooling air is required, such as low-speed stop-and-go driving. However, when cruising on the highway at steady speeds the slats automatically close to improve aerodynamics and fuel efficiency.

The new Escape boasts two new turbocharged engines, 11 new features exclusive to the segment, and fuel economy projected to top all vehicles of its kind. Among them are a hands-free power liftgate activated by a gentle kicking motion under the center of the rear bumper (allowing quick and easy access to the cargo area without having to set down packages or dig out keys. The same process closes the hatch), SYNC with MyFord Touch, a sensor-based Blind Spot Information System with cross-traffic alert, and Active Park Assist.

Ford will continue to sell the carryover 2.5-liter 4-cylinder engine developing 168 horsepower, but Ford estimates the base engine will account for only 10 percent of the mix and be mostly used in fleet vehicles.

The big news — Ford is offering a pair of its award-winning EcoBoost engines that offer increased performance while achieving better fuel economy.

The engine that will probably get the most consideration is the1.6-liter DOHC 4-cylinder with four valves per cylinder producing 178 horsepower and 184 pound-feet of torque. A bigger EcoBoost engine puts some real muscle into the Escape, a 2.0-liter 4-cylinder that pumps out 240 horsepower and 270 pound-feet of torque. All three engines are mated to a six-speed automatic transmission.

When compared to the horsepower available, fuel economy is excellent. The 1.6-liter is rated at 23 city/33 highway in FWD mode and 22/30 with AWD. Move up to the bigger engine and the trade off in fuel economy for the increase in horsepower may be worth it for many owners — the 2.0-liter is rated at 22/30 FWD and 21/28 AWD. The carryover naturally aspired 4-cylinder is rated at 22/31.

We drove both EcoBoost engines in the San Francisco area in April and the power difference wasn’t that discernible on level roads, but it was noticeable on mountainous grades. Same could be said of towing capacity. When properly equipped the 2.5-liter can tow 1,500 pounds; the 1.6-liter EcoBoost can tow 2,000 pounds and the 2.0-liter EcoBoos 3,500 pounds.

We came away thinking that we could easily live with the smaller EcoBoost with its less expensive purchase price and its increased gas mileage. It never failed to adequately answer the call in a full range of driving situations. The price difference for the engines in comparably equipped vehicles in the mid-level SE and SEL trim levels is $1,095.

For comparison purposes, the 2.0-liter has been measured from 0-to-60 in 6.8 seconds and the 1.6-liter in 8.5 seconds.

The 2013 Escape comes in four trim levels — the base S, SE, SEL and the top-of-the-line Titanium. Ford estimates SE sales will be in the neighborhood of 60 percent of total volume. During our testing we drove a fully-loaded Titanium that hit the scales at about $35,000 and also an SE that came in at about $29,000. Money not being the driving force (pardon the pun) there is no doubt the Titanium would make a proud addition to anyone’s driveway.

The interior is well-done and it’s readily apparent that good materials were selected in both the upscale leather interior and even the cloth seating. Both were extremely comfortable and held the driver and passenger tight during turns. There was also no feeling of body roll, either. Wind noise was negligible. Instrument panel and center stack lighting were crisp and clean. Mileage numbers on the IP digital printout was easily readable, even from the passenger side as well.

There’s a lot of “haul” room in the new Escape with its flat-fold rear seating. With the seats down the cargo volume is 68.1 cubic feet behind the first row; 34.3 cubic feet behind the second. Loading the Escape is also easier because the lift over height is just 27 inches. 

Regardless of which of the top three trim levels you purchase — we are discarding the S trim as a choice — standard equipment abounds. For the price of the FWD SE — $25,895 including destination — standard stuff includes the 1.6-liter EcoBoost engine, 17-inch alloy wheels, keyless entry, the Ford Sync system, satellite radio, steering wheel controls, cruise control, air conditioning, tilt and telescoping steering wheel and a six-speaker audio system.

Like most vehicles these days, the Escape can be loaded up well into the mid levels of 30 grand territory. The AWD Titanium with navigation, power panoramic roof and a trailer towing hitch will run $35,530.

Choose the vehicle to fit your needs and pocketbook and we are sure the new Escape will not disappoint.

Base price: $23,295; as driven, $27,960
Engine: 1.6-liter 4-cylinder EcoBoost
Horsepower: 178 @ 5,700 rpm
Torque: 184 foot-pounds @ 2,500 rpm
Drive: front wheel
Transmission: 6-speed automatic
Seating: 2/3
Wheelbase: 105.9 inches
Length: 178.1 inches
Curb weight: 3,515 pounds
Turning circle: 37 feet
Towing capacity: 2,000 pounds
Luggage capacity: 34.3 cubic feet
Cargo capacity: 68.1 cubic feet
Fuel capacity: 15.1 gallons (regular)
EPA rating: 33 highway, 23 city
0-60: 8.5 seconds (estimated)
Also consider: Honda CR-V, Toyota RAV4, Nissan Rouge

The Good
• Modern, eye-catching styling
• Energetic engine choices
• Segment-leading gas mileage
• High-quality cabin

The Bad
• Backup camera not standard equipment on SE trim

The Ugly
• Can get pricey when loaded with options