Expert Review:New Car Test Drive
New Car Test Drive
Best-in-class handling and performance.
Ford Escape offers agile handling on both paved and unpaved roads. It rides smoothly and gets strong acceleration performance from an optional V6 engine. The Escape seats four people comfortably, and folding down the rear seats reveals a flat, moderately sized cargo area. Best of all, its price is relatively low.
A completely new vehicle a year ago, the Ford Escape is among the best small sport-utilities vehicle on sale today, especially if you spend little time off road.
Two trim levels are available, XLS, XTL.
For 2002, the basic XLS version starts at $18,415 with front-wheel drive (2WD) and at $20,040 with four-wheel drive. The upgraded XLT begins at $21,950 with 2WD and at $23,575 with 4WD.
XLS comes with a 2.0-liter Zetec four-cylinder engine that provides 127 horsepower and a high level of standard equipment that includes air conditioning, illuminated remote entry, power windows and mirrors, a tilt steering column and an audio system with a CD player. For 2002 the audio system includes AM/FM/CD/cassette and a clock.
XLT adds a 201-horsepower 3.0-liter Duratec V6 engine, automatic transmission, four-wheel anti-lock brakes, cargo cover and convenience net, premium center console, fog lights, white-letter tires, premium cloth upholstery, power driver's seat, privacy glass, five-spoke aluminum wheels and an in-dash six-CD changer. The upgraded engine, in-dash CD, power driver's seat and privacy glass are new standard features for the XLT for the 2002 model year.
A large number of option packages is available for each trim level. For example, the XLT premium package ($1230) includes leather seating surfaces, leather-wrapped steering wheel, front buckets with 60/40 split rear bench, front door map pockets, overhead console with dual storage bins, front passenger under-seat storage tray, power moonroof with sunshade.
Ford designers worked to achieve a balance between the SUV's image of confidence, ruggedness and versatility with an image of agility and fun. The Escape's forward-poised stance, large wheel lips, wide body cladding and an integrated bumper guard give a functional look. The Escape is wider than other compact SUVs and this gives it a look that is both aggressive and well planted. Short front and rear overhangs add more to the sports appeal. The Escape looks bold and aggressive than the Honda CR-V, looking like it came from the same family as the Ford Explorer and Expedition.
Being able to see the leading edge of the hood from the driver's seat makes the Escape easier to maneuver in tight places, whether you're deep in the woods or (more likely) in a tight big-city garage. If you are deep in the woods, its 8.5 inches of ground clearance may help clear obstacles. Outside door handles are easy to grab and feel like they're going to last.
Accessories from Ford Outfitters include a snap-in pet barrier and a system to haul two mountain bikes in the cargo area. Bike racks can also be mounted on the roof; the standard roof rack with crossbars holds up to 100 pounds. We don't like the idea of getting vehicles with tall ground clearances then bolting running boards on them. Ford says it designed the running boards on the Escape so that they do not lower the ground clearance. They are expected to be popular on the Escape and are designed to make it easier to install kayaks, snowboards and other toys on the roof rack. Likewise, the rear bumper was designed to aid roof access.
Ford claims the Escape is among the most spacious of the small SUVs (rated at 133.9 cubic feet of total interior volume). The rear cargo area offers 63.3 cubic feet of cargo space with the rear seats folded down, making it just the thing for a day of antiquing. With the split 60/40 rear seats folded up to accommodate up to five passengers it provides 33.0 cubic feet. Entering and exiting the vehicle is aided by a low doorsill height and wide door openings.
Front-seat roominess is similar to that of the Explorer. Rear seats offer good knee room. White-faced instruments, in vogue these days, are in a straightforward instrument panel.
Side airbags are optional.
The audio system and heating, ventilation and air conditioning controls in the center stack are angled slightly toward the driver to ease reach while driving. Ford engineers say they tested the placement of the controls by using blindfolded occupants.
Sport-utility vehicles are not sports cars. In spite of that, California's twisting Highway 1 is an enjoyable drive in the Ford Escape. Handling response is relatively taut without that mushiness that characterizes SUVs with big off-road tires and long-travel suspensions. On muddy fire roads pocked with puddles and potholes, the Escape is a blast.
Steering is responsive. It feels direct and accurate without a big dead spot in the center. There's enough feeling in the steering to impart a sense of control. Though this is not a sports car, the tires provide respectable grip in paved corners.
When pushed beyond their limits, the front tires start slipping before the rear tires, just like most front-wheel-drive sedans. Called understeer, this means the Escape will describe a wider and wider arc through a corner as it is driven harder into a turn. So it's expected and predictable. Simply back slightly off the throttle and the vehicle tightens its line.
The Escape provides surprisingly good transient response in a series of left-right-left corners. This permits quick, yet smooth, driving. Two passengers never paused in an in-depth marketing discussion despite the fact that we were escaping at a brisk pace down Highway 1.
The V6 engine delivers good acceleration performance. While there's no such thing as too much power, I never felt lacking in the Escape. The engine and four-speed automatic transmission communicate and work well together. The transmission shifts smoothly up and down appropriately for the situation and the engine's broad power band never lugs or strains. It isn't the smoothest V6 on the market, nor is it the roughest. But it is smoother and more satisfying than the four-cylinder engines found on most small sport-utilities.
Brakes are smooth and responsive. The anti-lock brakes (ABS) come into play just when expected and are detectable by the familiar pulsating sensation. ABS lengthens braking distances on wet, slimy clay, however, so I found it difficult to slow the vehicle in time for tight switchbacks on the unpaved roads. (This is no different than any other SUV with ABS, however.).
With the V6 engine, which is standard in the XLT version for 2002 and an option in the XLS, the Ford Escape offers the most power in its category. A four-wheel independent suspension and unitbody construction make it handle almost as well as a car. A car-like ride makes it easy to live with. Overall, we feel the Escape is the best SUV in its class.
XLS ($18,415); XLS 4WD ($20,040); XLT ($21,950); XLT 4WD ($23,575).
Kansas City, Missouri.
Options As Tested
XLT premium package ($1230) includes leather seating surfaces, leather-wrapped steering wheel, front buckets with 60/40 split rear bench, front door map pockets, overhead console with dual storage bins, front passenger under-seat storage tray, power moonroof with sunshade.
XLT 4WD ($23,575).
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