2004 Ford Escape Expert Review:New Car Test Drive

Smooth, agile, roomy, practical, and affordable.


Ford Escape is a good choice among small, affordable, road-going SUVs. The Escape offers agile handling, a smooth ride, and comfortable seating for four. It also provides brisk acceleration when equipped with the optional V6 engine. It's compact but practical. Folding down the rear seats reveals a flat, moderately sized cargo area. Best of all, its price is relatively low. 

First introduced as a 2001 model, the Escape benefited from upgraded interior materials for 2003, and is unchanged for 2004. There are, however, a couple of new packages aimed at enhancing value. 


Ford Escape comes in three trim levels, XLS, XLT, and Limited. Each is available with front-wheel drive (2WD) or four-wheel drive (4WD). 

XLS ($18,710) comes with a high level of standard equipment, which includes air conditioning, illuminated remote entry, power windows and mirrors, a tilt steering column, center console, 15-inch steel wheels and an AM/FM/CD/cassette audio system with a clock. Power for the XLS comes from a 2.0-liter four-cylinder Zetec engine producing 130 horsepower and 135 pound-feet of torque. It comes standard with a five-speed manual transmission. A 201-horsepower 3.0-liter Duratec V6 and four-speed automatic are also available: The XLS Preferred Equipment Package 120A ($1,560) adds the V6, automatic, and premium console with armrest and cup holders. The XLS 4WD model ($21,925) comes standard with the V6 and automatic. 

XLT ($22,555) and XLT 4WD ($24,180) come standard with the V6 and automatic transmission. XLT also gets four-wheel anti-lock brakes (ABS), premium cloth upholstery, a power driver's seat, privacy glass, a power moonroof, cruise control, a cargo cover and convenience net, fog lights, an in-dash six-CD changer, and white-letter P235/70R16 tires on 16-inch five-spoke aluminum wheels. 

Limited ($24,615) and Limited 4WD ($26,240) come with premium leather seats, seat heaters, front side-impact air bags, dual front sun visors with illuminated vanity mirrors, an auto-dimming rearview mirror, heated exterior mirrors, a reverse sensing system, and a MACH Audio in-dash six-CD changer with automatic volume control. Limited sports a monochrome exterior with body-colored trim and bright machined 16-inch aluminum wheels. 

Option packages are available for each trim level. XLT Premium Package ($1230) includes leather seating surfaces, leather-wrapped steering wheel, a 60/40 split rear bench seat, front door map pockets, an overhead console with dual storage bins, a front passenger under-seat storage tray, and a power moonroof with sunshade. New for 2004 is the Limited Luxury Comfort Package, which includes the MACH audio system, heated side-view mirrors, reverse sensing system, front and rear premium leather-trimmed seats and heated front seats. Also new for 2004 is the Base Limited model, which features a monochromatic exterior appearance and front and rear leather seats, in addition to an auto-dimming rearview mirror, dual sunvisors with illuminated mirrors and an in-dash AM/FM six-disc audio system. 


The Escape is wider than other compact SUVs, giving it a well-planted demeanor. Escape's forward-poised stance, large wheel lips, wide body cladding, and integrated bumper guard lend a functional appearance, while its short front and rear overhangs add to its sporting appeal. It has a family resemblance to the Ford Explorer and Expedition, and looks bolder and more aggressive than the Honda CR-V. 

Being able to see the leading edge of the hood from the driver's seat makes the Escape easier to maneuver in tight places. Its 7.8 inches of ground clearance may help clear some 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 compromising an SUV's ground clearance with running boards, but Ford claims that the running boards on the Escape do not reduce ground clearance. They are designed to make it easier to lift kayaks, snowboards and other toys onto the roof rack. The rear bumper is also designed to aid roof access. 

The No Boundaries Rack System features a sliding rail that can be repositioned from the roof to the rear of the vehicle, locking into the bumper. This provides two separate loading surfaces: a traditional roof rack and a vertically oriented rack across the rear. When not in use, the sliding rails can be stored within the conventional roof portion of the rack system. 


The Escape has a spacious interior. Its front seats are nearly as roomy as the Explorers. Getting in or out of the front seats is made easier by low door sills and wide door openings. 

XLS has manually adjustable seats trimmed with cloth. XLT gets premium cloth trim. 

White-faced instruments are set in a straightforward instrument panel. 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 upgraded Escape's interior for 2003 with improved interior materials. Power window and lock switches are illuminated to make them easier to find. 

Side-impact airbags are standard on Limited, optional ($345) on XLS and XLT. standard. Pretensioners combined with load-limiting retractors are standard on front-seat belts. In a crash, these pretensioners automatically tighten the belts, while the load limiters are designed to reduce the risk of chest injuries in severe collisions. 

The rear seats offer good knee room. The rear cargo area offers 69.2 cubic feet of space with the rear seats folded down, 33 cubic feet with the seats in place. The rear seats are split 60/40. The rear-seat cushion can be removed for more load-carrying capacity. The flip-up rear glass offers easy access to the rear cargo area for small items. 

Driving Impression

The Ford Escape offers responsive handling and brisk acceleration performance. 

The suspension is relatively taut, without the mushiness that characterizes larger SUVs with big off-road tires and long-travel suspensions. It handles better than a Jeep Liberty or Toyota RAV4, and is quicker than a Honda CR-V. Steering is responsive. It feels direct and accurate with no 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 grip respectably in paved corners. There's surprisingly good transient response in a series of left-right-left corners. This permits quick, yet smooth, driving that will not upset passengers. 

The V6 engine delivers good acceleration. While there's no such thing as too much power, it never feels lacking in the Escape. The engine and four-speed automatic transmission communicate and work well together. The transmission shifts smoothly up and down, and chooses gears appropriately for the situation. The engine's broad power band never lugs or strains. This 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 in most small sport-utilities. 

Escape's brakes are smooth and responsive. ABS comes into play just when expected and is detectable by the familiar pulsating sensation. 

The Escape felt comfortable on a muddy fire road pocked with puddles and potholes, but it is lacking in true off-road situations. Its front-drive platform leaves it spinning its wheels on rough, loose, steep trails. It lacks traction and suspension travel. The suspension does not have the articulation needed for rugged terrain and there is no low-range set of gears. For everyday road travel, however, the Ford Escape is an excellent choice. 

When properly equipped, Escape has a maximum towing capacity of 3,500 pounds. 


Ford Escape is a well-balanced on-road SUV. It has a roomy interior and good cargo capacity. The available V6 engine provides the Escape with strong power. A four-wheel independent suspension and unit-body construction make it handle almost as well as a car. A car-like ride makes it easy to live with. It isn't designed for serious off-road driving, nor are its direct competitors. 

Model Lineup

XLS ($18,710); XLS 4WD ($21,925); XLT ($22,555); XLT 4WD ($24,180); Limited ($24,615); Limited 4WD ($26,240). 

Assembled In

Kansas City, Missouri; Avon Lake, Ohio. 

Options As Tested

Leather Comfort group ($575) includes leather seating surfaces, leather-wrapped steering wheel, front bucket seats and 60/40 split rear bench; Class II trailer towing package ($350); cargo cover ($75). 

Model Tested

Ford Escape XLT 4WD ($24,180). 

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