In which we spend a week and discover what we suspected all along – that the Blue Oval has another winner on its hands
Class-leading interior finish
MyFord Touch still needs some work
Small engine gets buzzy when you push it
Upper trim levels are pricey
Next to the word "metamorphosis" in the dictionary there should be two illustrations: the first would be an image of the second-generation Ford Escape while the second would picture the third-generation design. Take it from us, they are that different.
Such a radical change wasn't as difficult as it might seem, since the new 2013 Ford Escape bears a striking resemblance to and is actually based on – platform and all –the previous-generation European Ford Kuga.
Be that as it may, the difference is dramatic. Gone is the outdated boxy look replaced by a slick and sophisticated style that would look at home in a garage full of Mercedes and Bimmers.
That resemblance is hardly accidental as the Dearborn-based manufacturer's "One Ford Plan" now places styling responsibilities for all C-platform-based vehicles with Ford of Europe's design studio, which is based in Germany.
The results, both aesthetically and dynamically, speak for themselves. Not only is the new Escape one of the best-looking vehicles in its class, it's one of the best-handling small SUVs we have ever driven.
Inside, front seat passengers will find plenty of leg and head room. The leather-trimmed seats are nicely bolstered, although some might find them a bit narrow for their tastes. The driver's seat on our SEL featured electric adjustments for seat height, seat back angle, fore and aft adjustment as well as seat cushion angle.
Outward visibility is excellent due to the large expanse of glass with an especially nice touch being the large window aft of the C-pillar, which makes backing up and maneuvering in tight spaces much less of a guessing game than many of the vehicles in this class.
Another handy feature is the inset blind zone spotter mirrors on the door mirrors – an advantage in both urban and freeway driving.
Interior fit and finish is excellent. The dashboard has a clean modern look and is composed of soft touch surfaces accented by metallic trim. Instrumentation gauges are clear, distinct and backlit. Our SEL also featured LED lighting around the interior door handles and door storage pockets. Since our SEL included MyFord Touch, the center stack was comprised of an 8-inch LCD touch screen with two narrow buttons flanking a large round selector knob below it.
The area above the screen contains a slot for the CD player, while below it is a pod that contains the controls for the climate control system.
As for the MyFord Touch system itself, it still has a ways to go before it becomes the intuitive system iPhone users are accustomed to, although we were able to pair an iPhone very quickly without having to refer to the owners manual.
The steering wheel, which was wrapped in leather, had a substantial feel to it with just the right amount of grip. It also tilts and telescopes, making it easy to find a comfortable driving position.
Cargo volume is 34.3 cubic feet behind the reclining 2nd row seatbacks and expands to 68.1 cubic feet with the second row 60/40 seats folded forward – which, when they are, create an absolutely flat floor all the way back to the rear hatch.
A particularly nice touch is the ability to flip the three rear headrests forward to a horizontal position, dramatically improving visibility out the rear window.
The large rear doors make ingress and egress easy, giving two adults plenty of space with room for a third, if necessary.
As you might expect, our one-step-below-the-top-of-the-line AWD White Platinum SEL came very well equipped even without any of the extras. Aside from the aforementioned niceties, power windows, mirrors and door locks with keyless entry, 18-inch alloy wheels, fog lamps, rear wiper and washer, automatic climate control and privacy glass are all standard.
Our tester cam with the optional "equipment group 302A" which consists of pushbutton start, cargo cover, roof rails and two crossbars, Sony audio system with HD radio and iTunes tagging and the ultimate new trick, a hands-free, power liftgate – which you'll get a "kick" out of demonstrating to friends (sorry, couldn't help that).
Finally, traction control, torque vectoring control, AdvanceTrac with Roll Stability Control and a full complement of airbags including driver/passenger, driver knee, side and side curtain airbags are also standard.
On the road
The new Escape feels solid and well-planted on the road. The suspension does a good job of damping out all but the harshest of ruts while diving through corners brings out the best in its Focus-based platform – that is to say no drama whatsoever.
Freeway driving is also a breeze. We found we were able to maintain everything from legal to supra-legal speeds while feeling totally confidant in the Escape's ability to transmit vital driving information back to us. Yes, it is that good.
Speaking of performance, Escapes are available with three different engines and two different drivetrains.
The only transmission available on any Escape is a six-speed automatic, while all but the base S version, which only comes as a front driver, are also available with an intelligent all-wheel-drive system that splits the torque between the front and rear axles.
This system also works in conjunction with Ford's Torque Vectoring Control and Curve Control. For example, if the Escape is understeering (the tendency for a vehicle to go straight when you point it into a corner) the system will provide more torque to the rear wheels to provide more neutral steering. Trust us, it works.
The base engine is an all-aluminum 2.5-liter inline-4 that makes 168 horsepower and 170 lb.-ft. of torque. The top-shelf engine is an all-aluminum 2.0-liter, direct injection, turbocharged EcoBoost inline-4 the produces 240 horsepower (using premium fuel – not required) and 270 lb-ft. of torque.
The engine in our SEL is the middle child: an all-aluminum 1.6-liter, direct injection, turbocharged EcoBoost inline-4 producing 178 horsepower (again with premium fuel, though it's not required) and 184 lb.-ft. of torque.
Rated by the EPA at 22 mpg city/30 mpg highway/25 mpg combined, over a week of mostly city driving we observed a very respectable 23 miles per gallon with our all wheel drive SEL. Front wheel drive models equipped with the 1.6-liter engine return the Escape's highest EPA figures of 23 mpg city/33 mpg highway/26 mpg combined.
Escape new car prices begin with the FWD S model that has a base MSRP of $22,470 and can top out at over $37,000 for a fully-optioned AWD in Titanium trim. That, my friends, is a lot of cash – especially for a small non-luxury SUV.
Our four-wheel-drive SEL tester had a base price of $29,620. The 302A Equipment Group tacked on $2,360, while its White Platinum Tri-Coat finished added an additional $495 dollars. Factoring in an $825 destination and delivery fee minus $465 for the equipment group savings brought it to a total suggest retail price of $32,835, plus tax.
The Bottom Line
As we've stated in a number of Ford reviews, if looks could kill, we'd be in the morgue right now. The Escape is the hands-down, drop-dead winner in the styling department so if you don't want to be stared at, you might want to consider getting something uglier, because people do stare. It's also a lot of fun to drive. It has good straight line acceleration, excellent brakes and great handling.
In our opinion, with the new Escape, Ford goes from being an also-ran to one of the best all-around vehicles in the compact SUV segment.