Another "E" for Ford's SUV lineup.
by Jill Amadio
Anxious to reach the mud pile deep inside the woods bordering the meandering Russian River in Northern California, I reached toward the dashboard and turned the switch for Ford's new Control Trac II 4x4 Auto torque-on-demand. Nothing. Geez. Brand new off-roading system ballyhooed from Boston to Bangkok and no discernable clunk, twitch, or thunk.
Was it working? Yes indeed. Took us through squishy hubcap-high ooze as if we were on pavement. Not even the tiniest slippage. Then it was through the mud, threading between the redwoods, and headed for Bodega Bay and the coast.
With a "Buddhist biker" and a "champagne visionary" advertising for a mate in the local weekly, read when we stopped for lunch in historic Duncans Mills, it's kind of hard to keep your attention on the mechanics of Ford's newest four-door SUV but we quickly realized that the 2001 Escape, the company's sixth sport-ute, is destined to be its most successful. While the Explorer enjoys top billing right now, the new Escape is headed for global popularity and is being sold in 140 countries. It's probably Ford's most important vehicle this year and the company's gamble is already paying off: 35,000 are on order and it hasn't even hit the showrooms yet.
An entry-level compact SUV, the Escape is aimed at anyone brave enough to abandon that safe sedan and take a leap of faith into the rarified atmosphere of Sport Utility Vehicle Owners. Or at least, it used to be rarified when only Range Rovers ruled the roads. Today, it's become clogged but everyone's still wanting in. Ford is after anyone with an active lifestyle, young or old, who has never plunked down money on an SUV.
The Escape is also for passenger-car wimps who think that switching to a big, ugly, trucky SUV will take the roof off their garage or swell the balance on their Chevron credit card. Well, Ford's new SUV takes up the same space as a standard station wagon, and fuel economy is impressive. As for price, the Escape carries the same tag as a well-equipped Taurus and starts at $18,160.
Sales of small SUVs, once scorned as playthings, have doubled from 250,000 in 1995 to more than half a million in 1999. Ford is even willing to cannibalize sales from its Explorer SUV if necessary, believing it's better to steal from its own customer base than allow other manufacturers to do so with their compact SUVs such as Toyota's RAV4 Subaru's Forester and Honda's CR-V.
One Ford executive pointed out to me while sloshing around in the back seat as I drove through hairpins that while the Explorer has a much bigger engine and can haul 6000 lb, the Escape has a package that is almost as good for a lot less money. The same width as the Explorer, but 17 inches shorter in overall length, the Escape is also shorter in height but has a wider track than its bigger brother.
Taking the Escape route
The Escape is built on a unibody platform that is typically designed for cars but can be engineered to be truck and four-wheel drive-capable. The efficiency of the unibody is primarily vertical, allowing for very low step-over heights near the ground. It is also lightweight, adding to better fuel economy.
Because it is a global car (in some European countries it'll be called "Maverick") certain foreign requirements had to be taken into account. For example, Americans like to have macho truck tires hanging outside the body and wide rocker panels, but abroad tires must be tucked in and not protrude past the fenders. In addition, rocker panels must be narrow. Well, they've got the right idea over there. How many times have you stepped out of your SUV only to be smacked in the calves by the rocker panel? Happens to women, at least, every time. I know that wide step is coveted in many SUVs for its seeming convenience but the Ford Escape has what may be the lowest and easiest entry and exit height in the business, while at the same time maintaining around an eight-inch ground clearance. I didn't have to hop up once. Magic. If you still need help to load stuff onto the roof rack, you can add an optional step bar.
There are two Escape models: the XLS and the XLT. The base engine is an in-line four with two- or four-wheel drive, and manual transmission. The upgrade Escape with the V-6 only comes with automatic transmission. There are no two-door models. Great features in this 2001 Escape include the most spacious interior in the small SUV class at 133.9 cubic feet, a front-wheel drive powertrain, a choice of engines, a 3500-lb towing capacity with the XLT's V-6 engine, four-wheel independent suspension, and versatile seating.
At the heart of the Escape is its new optional Control Trac II 4x4 system. The basic concept gives buyers torque on demand wherever the torque is needed. If there's any slippage in the front wheels, the primary driving wheels in most normal driving conditions, Trac II will automatically transmit torque from the front to the rear and will do so on a continuous basis in its automatic mode. The system is virtually invisible to the driver and you'll have no idea it's activated except you're moving forward at a time when you would swear blind there's no way to progress in the darned snow, deep slush or sand. In normal driving conditions, the system functions as a 4x2 to increase fuel economy.
For techies who really want to know, the 4WD lockup system starts out with a power take-off unit attached to the transmission that turns the torque 90 degrees to send it to the rear end. If you're on a slippery boat ramp, for example, and the front wheels are slipping, the system will send all available torque to the back. For serious traction problems, the 4x4 Auto switch sends electrical current to an electro-magnetic clutch which locks up the clutch pack to virtually lock the front and rear ends together so you have maximum torque all the time, instantaneously, and can probably drive up and down the cliff walls of the Grand Canyon. The system is also on Mazda's similar but sportier Tribute. Ford and Mazda are partners and the Escape and Tribute are built at the same Kansas City factory.
The base engine block is the same as the Taurus and the 2.0-liter, 130-horsepower Zetec is from the Ford Focus, but Escape engineers added all the equipment on top of the engine, and all the other power equipment is unique. To save money, the company tried to use carryover parts from its vast vehicle bin, such as door handles from the Taurus and racks from other models but eventually it was decided to design all-new latches and modify the racks.
The exterior design makes no waves, it's basically boxy but neat and trim and stays within the familiar parameters of the Ford SUV brand. The balanced proportions are exceptionally pleasing with front and rear overhangs kept short to keep the vehicle nimble. The hood is slightly raked, walking a fine line between sporty and sleek that allows the driver to see the corners of the vehicle during parking. Stance was another objective from an aesthetic viewpoint so that the Escape would look as sturdy and stable as competitive SUVs.
Inside, everything is compactly arranged. The well-designed dash is angled towards the driver but not enough to prevent the passenger from changing the radio dials, darn it, and there's plenty of elbow room. Two consoles, four cupholders, lots of storage (some hidden), and foldable back seats that can be taken out and stored leave lots of room for cargo.
Ford has removed just about all the penalties and barriers reluctant passenger car aficionados have voiced against owning an SUV. Extremely easy to drive and handle, with excellent performance from the V-6 we tested, the Escape is a capable and comfortable conveyance.
2001 FORD ESCAPE 4x4 XLT
Base Price: $18,160; as tested, $23,710
Engine: 3.0-liter, 24-valve V-6
Transmission: four-speed automatic
Wheelbase: 103.1 in
Length: 173 in
Width: 70.1 in
Height: 67.0 in
Weight: 3457 lb
Fuel economy: 20 city/ 24 highway
Major standard equipment (XLT):
Power windows, doors
Remote keyless entry
Rear window defrost