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2003 Ford Escape

Best in its class.

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2003 Ford Escape

by Mitch McCullough


The Ford Escape is one of the best of the small, affordable SUVs, assuming that off-road travel isn't a priority. The Escape offers agile handling on paved and unpaved roads. It accelerates briskly when equipped with the optional V6 engine. It rides smoothly and its refined interior seats four people comfortably. Folding down the rear seats reveals a flat, moderately sized cargo area. Best of all, its price is relatively low.

The Escape was an all-new vehicle in 2001. For 2003, all models have upgraded interior materials for better appearance and feel. The seat fabrics, floor mats and door trim are of higher quality and are available in new patterns and hues. The center stack, door bezels and window switches are painted for a two-tone interior effect, and the window switches are illuminated for nighttime convenience.

For 2003, Ford has added an up-market Limited trim level, and a limited-edition option package called Midnight.

Model Lineup

For 2003, Ford has expanded the Escape model lineup from two trim levels to three. XLS starts at $18,800 with front-wheel drive (2WD) and at $21,895 with four-wheel drive (4WD). XLT begins at $22,335 with 2WD and at $23,960 with 4WD. New for 2003 is the Limited, at $25,460 with 2WD and $26,910 with 4WD.

The base XLS comes with a high level of standard equipment that 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. XLS shifts gears with a standard five-speed manual transmission. A 3.0-liter, 201-horsepower Duratec V6 and four-speed automatic are offered as an option.

XLT comes standard with the Duratec 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 on16-inch five-spoke aluminum wheels.

The Limited comes 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, Ford's Reverse Sensing System and a MACH Audio in-dash six-CD changer with automatic volume control. From the outside, you can spot a Limited by its monochrome exterior, with body-color cladding, fascias, moldings, door handles and liftgate trim; and by its bright machined 16-inch aluminum wheels.

Option packages are available for each trim level. For example, the 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 2003 is the XLT Appearance Package, which includes glossy Dark Shadow Gray bumper fascias and side cladding, machined bright aluminum 16-inch wheels and Dark Shadow Gray step bars.

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Also new is a limited edition XLT called Midnight. The Midnight Escape features gloss black paint on fascias, body cladding and wheel-lip moldings. A unique black trim treatment and ebony Nudo leather-trimmed seats complement the all-black exterior. Midnight comes loaded with side-impact air bags, a MACH MP3 music system, and 16-inch bright, machined aluminum wheels with high-gloss black accents and silver center caps. Midnight options include side-step bars and a trailer-towing package. Ford expects to build no more than 5,000 Midnight Escapes, priced $24,995 for the 2WD version, and $26,445 for the four-wheeler.


The Ford Escape is wider than other compact SUVs, and this gives it a look that is both aggressive and well planted. Ford designers worked to balance the confidence and ruggedness of a big SUV with a sportier image of agility and fun. The 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. The Escape looks bolder and more aggressive than the Honda CR-V, with a strong family resemblance to Ford's larger Explorer and Expedition.

Being able to see the leading edge of the hood from the driver's seat makes the Escape easier to maneuver in tight places, whether you're deep in the woods or (more likely) in a tight big-city garage. If you are deep in the woods, 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.

New for 2003 is an industry-first, dual-loading rack, which Ford calls the No Boundaries Rack System. The No Boundaries Rack System offers a unique sliding rail from the roof that can pull down vertically across the rear of the vehicle and lock into the bumper. This provides two separate loading surfaces: a more traditional one on the roof and an additional one across the rear. When not in use, the sliding rails can be stored within the conventional roof portion of the rack system.

Interior Features

With 133.9 cubic feet of total interior volume, the Escape is among the most spacious of the small SUVs. The rear cargo area offers 69.2 cubic feet with the rear seats folded down, just the thing for a day of antiquing. Even with the split 60/40 rear seats set up to accommodate up to five passengers, Escape still provides 33 cubic feet of cargo space.

Escaping into or out of the front seats is made easier by low door sills and wide door openings. In the front-seat area, the Escape is almost as roomy as Ford's mid-size Explorer. The rear seats offer good knee room.

Ford has significantly upgraded the Escape's interior for 2003. Both XLS and XLT benefit from new interior fabrics and materials with improved quality and feel. There's also a new finish for center stack, and now the front-door power window and lock switches light up to make them easier to find. Side-impact airbags are standard on Limited and Midnight, optional ($345) on XLS and XLT.

White-faced instruments, in vogue these days, 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 engineers say they tested the placement of the controls by using blindfolded occupants, but don't try that while driving.

Driving Impressions

Sport-utility vehicles are not sports cars. In spite of that, California's twisting Highway 1 is an enjoyable drive in the Ford Escape. Handling is relatively taut, without the mushiness that characterizes larger SUVs with big off-road tires and long-travel suspensions. On muddy fire roads pocked with puddles and potholes, the Escape is a blast. It's one of the best-handling SUVs in this class, much better than a Jeep Liberty, better than a Toyota RAV4, quicker than a Honda CR-V, but not as agile as a Subaru Forester.

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. When pushed beyond their limit, the front tires start slipping before the rear tires, just as with most front-wheel-drive sedans. This is called understeer, and it is intuitive and predictable. The Escape provides 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. (We have not tested the four-cylinder Escape.)

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

As mentioned, the Escape handles well on gravel roads, but it is lacking in serious off-road situations. Its front-drive platform leaves it spinning its wheels on rough, loose, steep trails. The suspension does not have the articulation and travel needed for rugged terrain and there is no low-range set of gears. For serious off-road capability, look to the larger Jeep Liberty, the extreme Jeep Wrangler, or the luxurious and versatile Land Rover Freelander. For everyday road travel, however, the Ford Escape is an excellent choice.


The Ford Escape is one of the best of the small, on-road SUVs. The available V6 engine provides the Escape with the most power in its class. 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. Overall, we feel the Escape is the best SUV in its class.

Model Line Overview

Model lineup: XLS ($18,800); XLS 4WD ($21,985); XLT ($22,335); XLT 4WD ($23,960); Midnight ($24,995); Midnight 4WD ($26,445); Limited ($25,460); Limited 4WD ($26,910)
Engines: 2.0-liter DOHC 16-valve Inline-4; 3.0-liter DOHC 24-valve V6
Transmissions: 5-speed manual; 4-speed automatic
Safety equipment (standard): dual front airbags
Safety equipment (optional): ABS, side airbags
Basic warranty: 3 years/36,000 miles
Assembled in: Kansas City, Missouri

Specifications As Tested

Model tested (MSRP): XLT 4WD ($23,960)
Standard equipment: air conditioning, anti-theft system with perimeter alarm, four-wheel anti-lock brakes, cargo cover and convenience net, center console with armrest, cruise control, 3.0-liter V6 Duratec engine, four-speed automatic transmission, front fog lamps, rear privacy glass, chrome grille, dual visor mirrors, AM/FM/cassette with in-dash six-CD changer, six-way power driver's seat with manual lumbar control, five-spoke alloy wheels, full carpeting, electric rear window defroster, power locks, illuminated remote keyless entry, headlights with automatic off/delay, power mirrors, accessory power outlet in rear cargo area, tachometer, power windows with express down for driver's window
Options as tested (MSRP): XLT premium package ($1230) includes leather seating surfaces, leather-wrapped steering wheel, front door map pockets, overhead console with dual storage bins, front passenger under-seat storage tray, power moonroof with sunshade; Towing package ($350) includes Class II trailer hitch, wiring kit, oil cooler.
Destination charge: ($565)
Gas guzzler tax: N/A
Price as tested (MSRP): $26,105
Layout: four-wheel drive
Engine: 3.0-liter DOHC 24-valve V6
Horsepower (hp @ rpm): 201 @ 5900
Torque (lb.-ft. @ rpm): 196 @ 4700
Transmission: 4-speed automatic
EPA fuel economy, city/hwy: 18/23 mpg
Wheelbase: 103.1 in.
Length/width/height: 173.0/70.1/69.1 in.
Track, f/r: 61.2/61.0 in.
Turning circle: 35.4 ft.
Seating capacity: 5
Head/hip/leg room, f: 38.3/53.4/42.7 in.
Head/hip/leg room, m: N/A
Head/hip/leg room, r: 36.9/49.0/36.4 in.
Trunk volume: 69.2 cu. ft.
Payload: N/A
Towing capacity: 3500 Lbs.
Suspension, f: independent MacPherson strut, coil springs, anti-roll bar
Suspension, r: independent, multi-link, coil springs
Ground clearance: 7.8 in.
Curb weight: 3346 lbs.
Tires: P235/70R16
Brakes, f/r: disc/drum with ABS and EBD
Fuel capacity: 16.0 gal.

Unless otherwise indicated, specifications refer to test vehicle.
All prices are manufacturer's suggested retail prices (MSRP) effective as of May 13, 2002.
Prices do not include manufacturer's destination and delivery charges. N/A: Information not available or not applicable.
Manufacturer Info Sources: 1-800-392-FORD - www.fordvehicles.com

Copyright © 1994-2003 New Car Test Drive, Inc.
This image is a stock photo and is not an exact representation of any vehicle offered for sale. Advertised vehicles of this model may have styling, trim levels, colors and optional equipment that differ from the stock photo.
2003 Ford Escape