Ford’s 2005 Escape spruces up and ups the ante with a new 4-cylinder

By Jim Meachen

We’ve spent considerable seat time behind the wheel of the Ford Escape since the small sport utility was introduced for the 2001 model year.

All of our test vehicles came with the very responsive 200-horsepower V-6 engine. That engine put the Escape at the top of its class, ahead of the popular Toyota RAV4 and Honda CR-V, both with 4-cylinder engines.

Outfitted with the Duratec V-6, the Escape is still our favorite small sport utility. The auto-buying public apparently agrees with us, voting the Escape number one with their pocketbooks in each of its four years on the market.
The 2004 Escape can also be purchased with an economical inline 4-cylinder engine. But we have deemed its 127 horsepower and 135 pound-feet of torque just barely acceptable.

And while the V-6 trumped the competition, the 4-cylinder did not live up to the performance supplied by the Toyota and Honda engines, which, by the way, are the only  engines available in the Japanese products.

Ford has upped the ante for 2005.

The “Blue Oval” company has replaced the 2.0-liter engine with an all-new 2.3-liter 4-cylinder that generates 153 horsepower and 152 pound-feet of torque.

This move will give buyers a chance to purchase a more economical Escape with horsepower ratings nearly identical to the RAV4 (161 horsepower) and CR-V (160 horsepower).

The new Escape can also be outfitted with new full-time all-wheel drive, an invisible system that transfers torque front-to-back as needed.

A 2005 4-cylinder Escape can be outfitted with a 4-speed automatic transmission and all-wheel drive for $21,745. That puts it in the same price range as comparably equipped 4-cylinder Japanese models.

We drove the new Escape for a week in various driving conditions including lots of stop-and-go traffic, interstate cruising and in two-lane highway traffic. Mated to the new 4- speed automatic, the engine answered the call,  including an occasion when there were four adults on board.

The 4-cylinder can also be purchased with a revised 5-speed manual transmission that, Ford says, has shorter and more positive throws.

While the current 4-cylinder does have nice off-the-line feel, the new 4 has a broader, flatter torque curve retaining the old engine’s good performance while creating better mid-range throttle response.

For those who will still opt for the performance of the V-6, you will be interested to know that it has been tweaked for 2005 for improved throttle response as well.

Our new Escape test vehicle seemed to be built like a rock (to coin a phrase), solid over the railroad tracks and potholes. No hint of anything amiss in the construction of this vehicle. Ford has got this one down pat.

The Escape proved agile in tight situations. Road handling is as good as anything in class and on-center feel is superb. And it performed as well as any SUV we’ve tested for under $30,000 in back-road twists and turns with very little body roll.

In fact, the Escape feels more akin to driving a compact sedan than a sport utility vehicle. The new all-wheel drive, dubbed the “Intelligent 4WD System” by Ford, engages the rear wheels as needed.

During normal driving conditions, the front wheels drive the vehicle. Using sensors at each wheel, the system’s computer is able to calculate dozens of times per second exactly how much torque to send to the rear wheels to minimize slip.
Ford officials say that a throttle start on snow shows the system to be the equivalent of “locked” four-wheel drive in terms of accelerating from rest.

Inclement winter weather has departed for the season (thank goodness) and we didn’t have the opportunity to give the all-wheel drive system a true winter test. Oh well, but a word of caution here, this is not the vehicle of choice for serious off-roading – winter or summer. If going far off the beaten path is part of your lifestyle you will need to look elsewhere to a vehicle that has a locking differential and a four-wheel drive low gear.

One major upgrade that should be important to all buyers is the addition of antilock brakes as standard equipment across the model lineup. Give Ford a big “way to go!”

Also, a very worthwhile $425 option is side canopy airbags that protect occupants during a rollover situation. That was included on our test vehicle and it should be at the top of everyone’s must have options list.

Speaking of safety, the Escape has done well in government crash testing, earning a perfect five stars for the driver in frontal impacts and four stars for the passenger. In side-impact crashes, it has earned the perfect five-star rating for both front and rear passengers.

In addition to the invisible changes and upgrades, Ford has also revised the interior and exterior for 2005, which will be noticeable on first glance. On the outside, the Escape gets a new front fascia with integral fog lamps, a new grille and quad headlamps with jewel-effect clear lenses and a new rear fascia.

The biggest and most positive change inside is the inclusion of a standard floor shifter. Not only is it more useable, the center console design gives the Escape a more attractive and sporty look.

Ford says the Escape has new and more supportive seats. And after a couple of hundred miles, we agree. The seats, including the new and very attractive cloth upholstery, are a step up from the previous seats.

As in the past, the rear seats fold flat in a 60-40 configuration. Rear-seat legroom is adequate and, although the rear seatbacks cannot be reclined, the rake is good and the seating position is comfortable.

Standard equipment on all Escapes is impressive including the aforementioned antilock brakes, plus air conditioning, an 80-watt AM-FM stereo with CD player, power windows and doorlocks and roof side rails.

A 300-watt Mach audio system is available across the lineup as an option.

The front-wheel drive 4-cylinder XLS model with 5-speed manual begins at $19,855. Our all-wheel drive XLS with automatic carried a base price of $21,745.
A handful of options including step bars, cruise control, a perimeter alarm, and side canopy airbags brought the bottom line to $23,235.

Competition in all segments of the sport utility market has grown dramatically over the past few years. Ford was the instant leader in the entry-level small SUV segment four years ago, and it seems to have done the right things for the 2005 model year to insure its dominance.

The new models should be arriving in Ford showrooms now.

One word of caution for those who want to take advantage of the new 4-cylinder engine – make sure you are negotiating on a 2005 model. The 2004 model, which will be sold side-by-side with the ‘05 for a few months, has the old, 127-horsepower engine.