Ford’s happy spot has been trucks; the bigger the better, but pricey fuel is changing that scene. Smaller SUVs are what’s hot; good news for loyal fans of the traditionally laid-out Escape and its Hybrid variant. In the second act of a two-part makeover — design last year, mechanical this year — the 5-passenger Escape is refitted to please.
There are three models of Escape 4-cylinder, 6-cylinder and the 4-cylinder/electric motor Hybrid. All are available in front- or all-wheel drive. Despite their truck-ish styling, all Escapes are built on a 4-door unibody chassis for car-like driving dynamics and are designed primarily for on-pavement use.
Trim levels are XLS, XLT and XLD, the last commonly referred to as the Limited. The sole XLS is the base Escape with the 4-cylinder engine and 5-speed manual transmission. A relative rarity, you’re much more apt to encounter the XLT and Limited which use a new 6-speed automatic transmission exclusively. They are well stocked with desirables such as SIRIUS satellite radio and heated mirrors.
Last year Hybrid buyers were left wanting some of the nicer features of the XLT and Limited gasoline models. No more, as the 2009 Escape Hybrid and Escape Limited Hybrid incorporate feature content identical to their gas counterparts. The gearbox differs, however, as the hybrids use a continuously variable transmission (CVT).
Escapes roll on 16-inch wheels, although a 17-inch option is popular. This year a new Michelin tire with low rolling resistance is part of a fuel economy push. So are visually minor changes to the grille — which was just redesigned last year — and small spoilers in front of the rear tires. According to Ford, the new grille and tire spoilers provide a three-quarter-mile-per-gallon improvement at a steady 70 mph.
Under the Hood
Major mojo to the gasoline powertrains highlights the Escape improvements. The 4-cylinder’s displacement was increased from 2.3- to 2.5-liters and the entire upper engine redesigned for better breathing. Power thus grew from 153 to 171 horsepower. Even better, the 3.0-liter V6 gained 40 horsepower via a similar upper-engine redesign and a higher 10.3:1 compression ratio. It now boasts 240 horsepower.
Compared to the EPA’s mpg figures for the ’08 Escape, the 2009 V6 (18/26) and 4-cylinder (20/28) models both realize a 2-mpg improvement on their highway ratings. This is thanks to their tweaked motors, the new 6-speed transmission, low-rolling-resistance tires, the improved aerodynamics, and electrically assisted power steering now standard on all Escapes.
Improvements to the Hybrid models range from the 4-cylinder displacement increase to massaged powertrain control software and brake system actuation. This last point is tricky, since Hybrid Escapes balance stopping power between the traditional brakes and regenerative braking from the 94-horsepower electric motor. It’s also one reason for the Escape Hybrid’s commendable 34/30 (city/hwy) fuel economy.
After a redesign last year, little has changed visually inside the Escape. That’s good, because the Escape interior is fresh and crisply contemporary without trendy excesses. Materials and textures are satisfying if not luxurious, and seat construction has been re-engineered and soft points added to the door panels. Unseen details are more high-strength steel in the chassis structure surrounding the cabin, plus retuned seat-belt tensioners and side airbags to work with the stiffer, quieter structure.
Standard in the Limited and Limited Hybrid is Ford’s Sync navigation and communications setup. When used in conjunction with the optional Sirius Travel Link, the combo yields voice-activated navigation backed up by a wealth of travel information such as restaurant locations and local fuel prices. Also handy is a 110-volt outlet on the center console of all Hybrids.
On the Road
The Escape’s high point is its car-like handling, definitely augmented this year by the addition of a rear sway bar. It’s still a tall-in-the-saddle SUV, so body roll is felt more than in a sedan, but the steering is direct and the naturally supple ride well-damped for a reassuring feel.
The newfound power is greatly appreciated, and while a 2009 4-cylinder now runs a dead heat to 60 mph with a 2008 V6 Escape, we’re not talking dragsters here. The 4-cylinder is, in fact, a moaner. Step on the gas and the distant engine moos as the automatic drops two gears to put the engine in the meat of its powerband. Perfectly acceptable for runabout status, and quiet while cruising, the 4-cylinder clocks into work when keeping pace in mad-house urban traffic.
Distinctly more relaxed, the V6 emits a civilized growl when provoked and trundles the Escape about its business from the background the rest of the time. It’s the best choice unless fuel economy is the major criteria.
That said, until middling speeds the most pleasant power comes from the Hybrid. The electric motor punches the Escape off the line faster than even the V6, and helps keep the party rolling until surface street speeds, where it eases off the oats. A smart choice for stop-and-go, the Hybrid tows only 1,000 pounds versus the V6’s 3,500 or the 4-cylinder’s 1,500. One caveat is the Hybrid’s brakes. Greatly improved for 2009, the pedal still demands a light touch and finishes with a sticky release.
Right for You?
Fully-featured, capable, intelligently sized and vying for best fuel economy in its class, the Escape is a many-time best selling compact SUV with excellent owner loyalty. That tells us something, and its broad appeal is strengthened by the 2009’s extra power and economy. Plus, Sync will seal many a deal, and is standard on Limited and Hybrid models.
The Escape XLS starts at $19,715, but expect to pay several thousand more for a typical 4-cylinder, and up to $25,945 for the 4WD Limited. Six-cylinder XLTs begin at $23,740 and nearly touch $27,000 in 4WD Limited trim. With the Hybrid ($28,305) and Limited Hybrid ($32,385), some of the fuel savings will obviously go to the bank, but the economy remains after the payments end.
Longtime Road & Track contributor Tom Wilson’s credits include local racing championships, three technical engine books and hundreds of freelance articles.