With the honourable exception of the 2004 Mustang, Ford US had something of a new model famine for much of the late Nineties and early Noughties, and their range looked increasingly uncompetitive, as the designs aged. It was not all bad, though, as one of the cars, launched in 2000 as a 2001 model year offering, had been well received. That car was the Escape, a smaller SUV than the big selling Explorer, and even when it was presented to the European press, it was praised as being a good car. The Europeans quickly lost interest, not least because the Maverick, as it was called on European soil, had no diesel engine, but in America, the Escape sold strongly. In 2005 it gained a sister, called Mercury Mariner, which had little more than the Mercury style grille and different badging to distinguish it from its Ford alter ego. With no new car in sight, both models were given a heavy facelift in early 2007, where the changes concentrated on applying the latest corporate look to the outside, and the use of a new interior. There have been a few further alterations since then. The Mercury version was phased out in 2010 with the axeing of the entire brand, but essentially, the Escape has not changed much for a while. In 2010, and to some extend helped by the US “Cash for Clunkers” program, the Escape recorded its highest annual sales volume, at just under 200,000 cars. I sampled a Mariner, in V6 form in early 2009, when it was used in the snows of Chicago, so it seemed timely to see how the Escape compares in 2011.
Ford offer the Escape with three different engines, and a choice of all wheel drive or not. Entry level cars come with two wheel drive, and a 4 cylinder engine. For 2010, this was upgraded from the previous 2.3 litre to a 2.5, in which form it develops 171 bhp. The 3.0 V6 also saw a power increase for 2010, and now puts out 240 bhp, as opposed to the 200 bhp of earlier cars. Third engine choice is a Hybrid, based on the 4 cylinder car. combining a 153 bhp petrol engine with an electric motor. It requires no plug-in charging, and this model has a continuously variable transmission. Entry level XLS cars have a 5 speed manual, and all other models have a 6 speed conventional automatic.
It took a twist of the key and about a squillisecond to work out that the test car was a 4 cylinder model and not the much smoother V6. Even at idle, this is not a good sounding engine. It does not get better once you move away, either. No wonder I found that Ford seem to have made it difficult for the press to test this version of the car, as all the reports seemed to concentrate on the V6 or the Hybrid cars. Let’s be clear, this is a rough engine until you reach cruising speed, at which point if becomes acceptable. The worst crime is simply the noise, and the impression that it gives you that you are asking of it things which it does not want to do, such as accelerate the car. Needless to say, with only
171bhp in quite a heavy vehicle, it is not fast, but it is not embarrassingly slow, either. The 6 speed automatic transmission is very smooth in operation. There is no manual override available. The test car was an All Wheel Drive model, though you would not know this from the driver’s seat, as there is no evidence in the cockpit. Biggest clue is that the AWD cars come on 235/70R16 wheels, with white lettering on them. These are unusual looking tyres for a car of this size. The net of the all wheel drive option is that I found no issues with the steering and handling. This is not a Ford that has had the Parry-Jones treatment, but nor it is anything like the recently superceded Explorer which was truly alarming on the twisties. That car had worrying brakes, too, but this is not a trait of the Escape, whose braking performance seemed perfectly OK. There is a foot operated parking brake, with a hand operated release lever mounted so low down in the dashboard that it is clear that Ford assumed you would never want to use it. The ride is good enough. Noise levels, once cruising at a steady speed are relatively low, with not much in the way of road or wind noise, and that cursed engine features far less than when accelerating. With lots of glass, and relatively slim pillars, all round visibility is good. One feature I particularly liked was an inset in the top corner of each door mirror, giving an additional view of what is more closely alongside you than from the rest of the mirror. It is a far simpler solution than all these complex electronics-based blind spot elimination systems that others seem to be adopting, and is something I would like to see more widely adopted.
The interior of the Escape betrays the age of the overall design. Although a new dashboard was part of the 2007 refresh, what you get is a very straight edged design, comprised of lots of hard and low rent looking plastic. the steering wheel is allegedly leather wrapped, but it neither looks nor feels like it, proving fairly unpleasant to hold. The oatmeal coloured interior of the test car probably did it no favours, either. Look past this, and it is not too bad. The main dials are clear and easy to read. The central part of the dash contains a display for the audio system, clock and compass, in old style green digital graphics, an integrated satellite radio and the air conditioning controls. The serrated edges on the latter are bit unnecessary, but everything is easy to use. The facelift moved the transmission selector from the column to the centre console, which is where you will also find cup holders, and a useful stowage area in front of the gearlever. There is a single column stalk, which perpetuates Ford’s annoying practice (and it is not just Ford, it has to be said) of making you twist through all the intermittent wipe positions to get to a continuous wipe setting (and not that I needed to use the wipers except to clear dead insects off the screen!). The lights are operated by a rotary dial, to the left of the wheel, and lower down than this you find switches to cycle through the trip computer displays. The interior is exactly the same as that in the Mariner that I sampled a couple of years ago, barring the badge on the steering wheel boss.
People choose an SUV, even the smaller ones, among other reasons for the amount of room in the compared to a more conventional saloon. The Escape is unlikely to disappoint in this regard. There is far more headroom than you would get in a saloon car, and space in the back and the boot is ample, too. There is a flat floor to the boot, and you can extend the space by pulling the rear seat squab forwards and up, then, once you have removed the headrests, dropping the rear seat backrests, which are asymmetrically split, into the space, giving you a completely flat load area. Access to the boot is either by lifting the whole tailgate, or you can just raise the glass though clearly anything you want to drop into the boot this way is going to fall quite a long way! Inside the cabin, there is a very small glove box, modest door pockets, a cubby under the central armrest, and a lipped area in front of the gearlever.
Three trim levels are offered: XLS, XLT and Limited. The test car was the middle one of these. XLS trim is fairly basic, though you do get air conditioning, cruise control, an MP3 capable audio system, and roof rails. XLT trim adds the automatic transmission, the leather wrapped steering wheel, power adjustment for the driver’s seat, a satellite radio, keypad entry, fog lights and privacy glass. As an AWD model, you get the big 235/70R16 tyres with white lettering. Upgrade to a Limited, and you get leather upholstery, heated seats and mirrors and a cargo cover for he boot. An indication of the age of the design is that there is still a whippy long old-style radio aerial on top of the front wing. You don’t see those on many new cars any more.
This is likely to the final year of production of the current generation Escape, and a new global car based on the Vertrek concept that premiered at Detroit in January 2011 is coming as a replacement. That is probably no bad thing, as the Escape shows its age in too many ways. It was a good car when launched 10 years ago, but standards have moved on a lot in that time, and although the 2007 facelift freshened the looks, it desperately needs a decent engine, and a more modern interior would be no bad thing. If anyone is interested in the current model, my experience suggests that you would be well advised to avoid the 4 cylinder car and spend the extra on the V6.