The majority of automakers plan on a five-year life cycle for their new car or truck designs, often augmenting a vehicle’s appearance with running updates and small revisions during the third year of the projected production schedule.
When a vehicle enters the ninth year of its life cycle and it continues to sell extremely well, then two things become apparent: the manufacturer had a strong design from the beginning, and, that manufacturer has recapped its initial investment twofold.
So it is for Ford’s compact class Escape SUV. One of the bright stars in Ford’s relatively strong showings in this down market, the Escape first went on sale as a 2001 new model. The car-based Escape has been a consistent best-seller in this segment, often leading or challenging for the top-spot against its two closest rivals here — the Honda CR-V and Toyota RAV4. So far in 2009, the ninth year of the Escape’s production, this small crossover/SUV is just behind the CR-V in sales, with a strong surge in June pushing the Escape to only 2,000 units behind the Honda. Escape sales so far this year are down only 17 percent, the RAV4 is off 13 percent, while the Honda’s sales volume is behind last year by 25 percent.
While not great numbers, these sales figures highlight the dramatic changes in this truck segment. At one time Ford’s Explorer was the number three selling vehicle in America behind the Ford F-series and the Chevy Silverado pickup. Today, Explorer sales are one/tenth the level of its heyday, while the small Escape outsells the Explorer three to one.
Wearing the visual enhancements introduced last year, the ’09 Escape also gets a new powertrain for upscale trim levels. The 3.0-liter V-6 — once the most powerful engine in the segment — has been retuned to produce an additional 40 hp, up to 240 hp now, and is teamed with a new six-speed transmission rather than the previous four-speed automatic. The changes are very welcome, as the Escape packs more punch for passing and towing (up to 3,500-pounds) plus its EPA mileage ratings are improved.
Not the smoothest, most refined engine available in the segment, the latest Duratec V-6 does, however, feel much more responsive. The new six-speed crisply shifts up and down and provides the extra gear ratios that enable actual fuel mileage of 23.2 mpg, 24.0 mpg, and 25.2 mpg — excellent numbers for this class with V-6 power.
Much of the Escape’s appeal lies in the fact that it offers interior space that comes close to the larger Ford Explorer. Front- and second-row passenger space is surprisingly roomy for the compact class with good leg and head room for all but the tallest occupants. A split-folding rear seat offers decent thigh support for adult riders, with easy ingress, too. Add a cargo hold accessed via the light hatchback — that includes a separate opening glass liftgate — and the Escape’s versatility trumps the larger cargo holds of some rivals, including the Explorer. Many buyers also prefer this arrangement as opposed to the side-hinged rear doors on the CRV and RAV4.
Due to its lighter weight and car-based chassis the Escape also drives and handles better than the midsize Explorer. There is some body roll evident in many turns, yet the fully independent chassis absorbs road imperfections with composed indifference. Steering feel — never a strong suit in Ford’s SUVs — is remarkably accurate. The wheel is nicely weighted, provides excellent path accuracy, and for a vehicle with 12,000 miles in the test fleet, a nice example of quality dynamics.
During the summer of Noah’s second ark building, the Escape ventured out every day with headlights on and wipers activated. This highlighted some of the dated-ness of a platform approaching 10 years in age. Ford has placed the Escape’s wiper and headlamp controls on one left side operating stalk. This setup precludes simple one-swipe emergency acts to clean your windshield, as the Ford requires a delicate twist of the stalk-end to turn the wipers on. With the right side of the steering column completely vacant — Ford has moved the shift lever to the console — this control seems ill-conceived.
Likewise, the starkness of a cabin swathed in black fabrics, black plastics and polished graphite brightwork makes the Escape Limited seem…somber. While a power sunroof improved visibility somewhat, and the small power seats offered credible comfort, the cabin felt very dark with contours and shapes running all together. Flat surfaces on the instrument panel and sharp creases at the dash corners — hard on the shin bones entering — all add up to a dated design.
Despite its age, the Escape’s comfortable ride, ample interior space, and vibrant new V-6 add up to a solid value in the small SUV class. Buyers should shop for deals as new products from Chevrolet, Hyundai and Subaru make this one very competitive segment.
Just the Facts: Ford Escape
Escape is a compact class SUV with front- or available all-wheel drive. Pricing starts at $20,100 for base 2WD models with five-speed manual and climb all the way to $33,385 for the AWD Hybrid edition. Tested Limited Escape with AWD lists for $32,955.
Features on test truck: dual climate controls, heated power mirrors and seats, reverse parking sensors, Class II tow package, navigation system, satellite radio, power sunroof, leather covered power seats, privacy glass, auto-dimming rear view mirror, automatic headlamps, fog lights, six-disc CD stereo with MP3, and AdvanceTrac 4WD.
Escape offers three powertrains; 171-hp 2.5-liter four cylinder is standard with EPA ratings of 22/28-mpg; revised 3.0-liter V-6 w/240-hp is optional with new six-speed automatic and EPA ratings of 17/24-mpg; plus the Hybrid Escape comes with the four and electric motors to earn EPA estimates of 29/27-mpg. Escape is built in Kansas City.
Escape measures 174.7 inches long on a 103.1-inch wheelbase. Peak cargo volume is 66 cubic feet. Compare to Honda CRV, Toyota RAV4, Saturn Vue, Chevy Equinox, Subaru Forester, Nissan Rogue, Hyundai Tucson and Volkswagen Tiguan.
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