It’s now more than 6 years since I last drove a Ford Escape, and in the meantime, I have driven so many other vehicles that my memories of Ford’s smallest SUV are somewhat hazy. As well as spawning Mazda and Mercury alter egos for the US market, the Escape appeared in slightly modified form for Europe, badged as the Maverick. Although the press praised the car initially, they very quickly turned against it, and its market life in the UK was short. So, I was quite surprised to see that they are still available in the rental fleets of Switzerland. When I examined my test car, a 4 cylinder 2.3 litre XLT 4WD version, although it appeared to have been registered in November 2007, the paperwork associated with the car said it was built (in Genk, not the US, I was surprised to learn), in December 2006, and it was described as a 2006 Model Year vehicle. Both Hertz and Avis still have a number of these cars, so I wonder if they either stock-piled, or bought all the remaining models and are gradually putting them into service.
The Escape that I drove had the 3 litre V6 engine, and I recall that was one of its better features, so I was interested to see how the 4 cylinder 2.3 would perform. Despite the fact that this is quite a large and heavy car, it was not as out of its depth as I feared. For sure, it is not fast, but it had enough oomph not only to keep up with the traffic, but to be able to accelerate into a flowing autobahn without causing undue alarm. The Swiss mountain roads are still closed with snow, so I only ventured onto the lower reaches of the Klausen Pass, and here the Maverick proved that the engine is not totally lacking. However, you do have to make frequent use of the gearbox, and this is where the problems start. There were times when it felt like a Ford gearchange, with a short stubby lever that could slot quite cleanly, with just enough resistance to indicate where you were moving the lever, but actually more of the time, it felt like an old-school VW box, and feeling confident that you had engaged reverse (located below 5th on the shift) was definitely redolent of those recalcitrant changes. In the US, where almost all cars are automatics, this would not be an issue, but it was a definite demerit for the car. Considering how I drove the car, overall economy was pleasing coming in at 31 mpg over the 500km test distance.
After the somewhat alarming experience with the Explorer’s brakes, I was interested to see if the Maverick was better endowed. Thankfully, it is. No issues with the stopping power, or the feel of the brakes. The handbrake, however, was less convincing. Not only was it mounted too far forward, but unless you pulled on it really hard, it did not engage fully, and you could feel the car moving slightly. Probably another legacy of a car designed primarily for automatic transmissions. Another Explorer trait, that of rather challenging handling characteristics was also thankfully absent, and while this is definitely no sports car, the car did go around corners without me feeling worried that it was going to topple over. The steering is well weighted and had reasonable feel to it. I would not describe the Maverick as particularly quiet. Noise seemed to be from a mixture of sources, of which road noise was perhaps the single largest culprit. I’ve encountered far worse, for sure, but I have also come across rather more restful vehicles.
One reason why people buy SUVs like this is for the “commanding” driving position, and it is certainly true that by sitting up that bit higher than many other road users, you do have a better view of what is going on around you. As this is not that large an SUV, getting in and out of the car was easy enough, too. However, once inside, you are in no doubt that this is an American car. The interior of the test car was trimmed in a very light beige colour, and was comprised of some very nasty quality very hard plastics of the sort that even the Americans have managed to move away from. Several other details remind you of the origins of this car, such as the winged outer to the slot where you insert the ignition key, and a stereo system that I have seen in many an American vehicle. Once you get over the rather disappointing quality ambience, the interior is OK. The instruments are clear, and all the switches are of decent enough quality.
The seats in this model were trimmed in leather. Or so I am led to believe. Along with the questionable colour, the quality was pretty disappointing. The front seat back-rests were adjusted in a series of steps, rather than being continuously adjustable, but were otherwise comfortable. There is plenty of space in the rear of the Maverick, and there is a decent sized boot, which I was pleased to see came with a cover. Access to the boot can be gained by just opening the rear window, or the whole tailgate can be raised.
In the US, the Escape was “freshened” in early 2007. Although most of the changes were cosmetic, with a rather more aggressive and dominant grille, and new light clusters, the car continues to sell well. Not only did the equivalent changes not apply to the Maverick, but Mazda switched their attentions to selling the CX-7, which is doubtless a far better car. On the evidence of my test drive, I’d struggle to recommend the Maverick. Hertz also offer the Kia Sportage in the same rental group, and there are a whole range of other competitors on the market, including the highly rated RAV4, CR-V and X-Trail. Those have to be the next cars of this type to try.