Sunday, March 3, 2013

Ford Escape - A New European Adventure

The Escape - In San Francisco!
The new Ford Escape is a great departure from the original model. There are very good reasons for this, and it's good news for American car buyers.

The original Escape was a junior version of Ford's Explorer, which was hugely popular at the time--and seemed to need a companion for folks who wanted a smaller SUV. The Escape, since it arrived, has competed with models such as Honda's CR-V and Toyota's RAV4.

The original car, though was based on a Mazda platform; Ford sold off its interests in the Japanese brand years ago, so the new Escape is based on the European Ford Kuga, a car that we never had in the U.S. before. Much like the Focus, Fiesta and Fusion, the Escape is now a world car, although the Escapes we get are assembled in Louisville, Kentucky.

The new model couldn't be more different. While the original Escape followed the "two-box" model, with an upright windshield, flat hood, blunt nose, and squared-off cargo hold in back, the new one is much more edgy. It's really the ultimate crossover, with the carlike feel that's popular with buyers today. That means a larger, longer windshield (the new Escape's is like a minivan's), and any hint of truck is banished. The "utility" part remains, with folding rear seats and a rear liftback.

The new Escape is touting its special foot-activated liftback. Although my Deep Impact Blue Metallic tester did not, for some reason, have this feature, it's great for those times when you arrive at your car with your arms full and just want to open the rear hatch.

The inside of the new crossover carries over the European design theme. No surface is plan or simple. The dash and doors are built of angles and interactions, so your eye doesn't settle anywhere easily. The look is interesting, and even exciting. Ford's interiors in recent memory were more likely to be plain and subtle.

As usual, there is a hierarchy of models, from S to SE to SEL to Titanium. The differences are too many to lay out here, but you can get a fairly straightforward family hauler or load it up as a Titanium with pretty much every option imaginable. Ford's website lets you configure the one you want and price it out before visiting a dealership.

My test car was an SE. That meant 17-inch alloy wheels outside, cloth seats inside, and the equipment most crossover buyers would want, including air conditioning with climate control, a sound system that includes satellite radio, remote keyless entry, and all the airbags you could imagine. A couple of modest packages added things like black roof rails with crossbars, and the MyFordTouch system.

MyFordTouch lets you configure what you're looking at on the dash and access your phone and car controls with voice commands. As computer and smart phone users, we expect to be able to customize these items, and you can. You can make hands-free phone calls, change audio programming and adjust the climate control with a flick of a switch on the steering wheel and some clearly enunciated words. With practice, I've gotten the system to work fairly well, but there is a learning curve.

Ford wants the new Escape to be fuel efficient, and offers three four-cylinder engines. The standard one is a carryover 2.5-liter unit that puts out 168 horsepower and 170 lb.-ft. of torque. But the excitement is  around the two EcoBoost powerplants, including a 1.6-liter and a 2.0-liter. The smaller of the two, despite its compactness, beats the 2.5-liter, with 178 horsepower and 184 lb.-ft. of torque. The 2.0-liter unit is the sporty one, with 240 horsepower and 270 lb.-ft. of torque.

My tester had the 1.6-liter under the hood, and it did a decent job or moving the 3,500-lb. car down the road. It was not a rocket going uphill, however. I'd like to see how the 2.0-liter unit would pull. In any case, I averaged 22 miles per gallon, which is not the 26 average that the sticker claims (23 City, 33 Highway). I may have skewed it with too much bumper-to-bumper commuting, but I'd like to do better with such a small engine. Both EcoBoost engines require premium fuel, which adds at least a dime to every gallon you buy.

All Escapes use a six-speed automatic transmission, and all-wheel drive is available. In this application, four-wheel traction is intented as a safety feature and is not really intended for any serious off-roading. Ford makes other vehicles to help you with that.

Like other new Fords, this car drives well, with taut handling, a firm suspension, comfortable, supportive seats, and some feedback to your hands through the wheel of what's going on below. This really is the family wagon of the 21st century, and Ford is surely hoping that this radically different Escape will continue to be a bestseller.

Prices start at $23,295 for an S and move up to $31,195 for the Titanium. My SE, with options and delivery, came to $28,335. All prices include shipping.

Ford, the company that made a fortune on SUVs in the 1990s and early 2000s, has been adapting to a changing marketplace. Expect to see more crossover vehicles like this new Escape and the hybrid C-Max in showrooms and on the road. The EcoBoost engines, which deliver "next-size-up" power with more efficiency, will proliferate. And sharing a platform worldwide will keep costs down. And Fords will not be boring, you can count on that.


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