You don't have to buy an import in order to get a decent compact SUV (or crossover as some people like to call them), as there is a good alternative built in the USA by Ford. It's the Ford Escape, which has been on the market since the summer of 2000, when it was first introduced as a 2001 model. It is fully competitive with the segment-leading Honda CR-V and Toyota RAV4.
What's more the Escape has a unique option — it is available with a Hybrid drivetrain for those looking for an eco-friendly utility vehicle. You have to look at larger, more luxurious, SUVs or smaller sedans if you desire a hybrid.
In today's changing automotive market it's no surprise that the Escape has become one of Ford's best selling models.
At the end of the last century, large SUVs were among the most popular vehicles on the road. However, Honda and Toyota were both doing well selling a smaller car-based, rather than truck-based, SUVs. Ford obviously saw the coming trend away from larger vehicles when it introduced the Escape in 2001.
It was an immediate success, closely matching sales of the Honda CR-V and Toyota RAV4. Indeed these three vehicles have been the top three best-selling models in this segment ever since, trading places in different years as the Number One seller.
Between 2001 and 2004, the Escape was offered with a 2.0-liter four-cylinder engine with a manual transmission only, in a front-wheel-drive or all-wheel-drive configuration. A more powerful version with a 3.0–liter V-6 engine was available with an automatic and the same choice of a front-drive or AWD drivetrain. Incidentally, neither Honda nor Toyota offered a V-6 in their models until recently.
In 2005 the Escape received a freshened look along with some upgrades that included a new 2.3-liter four-cylinder engine with an optional automatic transmission. Other upgrades included moving the automatic shift lever from the steering column to the central floor console. Anti-lock brakes became standard and side curtain airbags were available as an option.
The most significant addition in 2005 was the Hybrid model. It was powered by a detuned version of the four-cylinder engine mated to an electric motor. In a hybrid, the electric motor supplies power at low speeds and assists the gas engine when accelerating. The Escape Hybrid uses a continuously variable automatic transmission (CVT) and delivers around a 50% improvement in gas mileage.
It's worth noting that there were also two almost identical derivations of the Escape on the market during this period — the Mercury Mariner and Mazda Tribute.
In 2008 the Escape (as well as the Mariner and Tribute) received extensive updates to the exterior sheet metal and a new interior. However the basic dimensions and powertrains did not change. Meanwhile Toyota came out with a bigger RAV4 in 2006, which offered a V-6 as well as a third row of seats. Honda introduced an all-new version of the Honda CR-V in 2007 that was actually a shade smaller than the previous model. Unfortunately, these all new competing models began to make the Escape look and feel somewhat dated as a current vehicle.
1. 2006 Ford Escape Hybrid
Automatic, 31,500 miles
Asking price: $17,000 (April 2009)
Owner: Don, male, age: 60
This is basically the tale of two Hybrids in black and white. It seems that Don's sister purchased an Escape Hybrid new in 2006, and she liked it so much that she persuaded her brother to buy one. However his partner had a Mercedes, and he decided he really didn't need the Escape any more, so he was asking his sister to sell it for him. This gave me the chance to experience two '06 Hybrid's in one visit. Both were in really good condition, and the black one for sale drove nicely.
It was eerie to start the engine and hear only a slight hum. Once I got out of the driveway and headed down the road, you'd never know you were in a hybrid. Unlike some other hybrids, Ford went to great lengths to make the vehicle drive and feel like a regular vehicle. I did not even really notice the CVT transmission that is used in place of a regular automatic. It didn't seem to "slip" as much as in other cars with CVTs. Perhaps it's better mated to a hybrid. Incidentally, it reminded me how much I enjoyed the Escape Hybrid when I originally drove one in 2004 at its launch.
Don is 6 ft. 9 ins. tall and says he has no problems with the seating or visibility. His sister is only 7 inches shorter and likewise has no problem with interior headroom. She did complain about the location of the parking brake in the center console and wished it had bench seats. She uses her Escape Hybrid to take her dogs to shows and likes the large rear opening with separate lifting glass window in the tailgate for quick access.
She says she gets around 30 mpg consistently. "I don't feel frustrated sitting in traffic jams as there's no cost," she says. Although Don's sister has no plans to sell her Escape at present, she would buy another one when the time comes.
2. 2003 Ford Escape XLT
Automatic, 57,000 miles
Approximate value: $8,800 (April 2009)
Owner: Leslie, female, age: 53
Leslie is another tall person (just over 6 ft.) who seems to like her Escape. "I looked at the Hybrid but did not feel ready for one," she tells us. "I like the performance of this model." She had actually owned this six-year old Escape with its V-6 engine for only three months when we met her, but she was very pleased with it and had had no problems. As a school aide she uses it mainly for commuting around town.
I took it for a quick drive and it proved to be vice free. It had a quiet ride, and there were no visible blemishes. Obviously the former owners had looked after the vehicle well.
Leslie's previous vehicle was a Ford Explorer, and despite the Escape's smaller size, she had no qualms in "downsizing." "I like the storage and versatility, such as the opening rear window," she says. "However I would like to have a compass and outside temp gauge." About her only complaint was the awkwardness in lowering the back seat to provide a flat storage space.
Considering its much lower value, due to its age, this Escape would be a great used buy, as it does not look much different from a newer model.
3. 2006 Ford Escape Hybrid
Automatic, 46,000 miles
Approximate value: $16,100 (May 2009)
Owner: Tina, female, age: 46
It must be because I am in California, but it seemed that during the period I was looking for Escapes the majority I found were Hybrid models. Considering everything but the engine and transmission is the same, it did not really matter. The Hybrid is very similar to the regular models except the Hybrids are more expensive to buy but apparently not to maintain.
Tina is yet another owner who is really pleased with her Escape Hybrid. "I keep getting asked about the car by people," she tells us. Indeed she thought I was yet another passer-by asking her about her experiences when I approached her.
As a college professor, she does a fair amount of driving and says it is fine for long journeys. "I feel good at saving so much fuel driving around town."
Like the other Escape owners I met, Tina had experienced no problems with her car in the year she had owned it. She also praised the car for its functionality as she uses it to take her kids to school and sports activities. Her previous vehicle was a Mercury Villager, and she liked the Escape much more. Her only complaint was the lack of space to put her handbag between the front seats.
During a quick look over the car I could not find anything wrong, except it would need a new set of tires fairly soon.
Overall the Escape has been a very successful model for Ford. Although its sales volumes have never matched those of the Ford Explorer in its heyday, the Escape has sold as well as its closest rivals — the Honda CR-V and Toyota RAV4. These are the three leading models in sales in the compact SUV segment, each selling around 150,000 to 170,000 vehicles per year during this period. The Mercury Mariner and Mazda Tribute sales volumes were far lower, so you are not going to find as many for sale as used vehicles. Likewise sales volumes for the Hybrid were also small, representing about 12%-15% of all Escape sales.
The four-cylinder models came with a manual transmission only until 2005, which probably explains why sales of this entry-level model were minuscule at fewer than 5% of the total. Once the upgraded Escape appeared in 2005, the uptake of the four-cylinder model, with an optional automatic transmission, jumped to nearly 30%. Barely 5% retained a stick shift. The split of front-drive and AWD was about 50-50 during these years for all model variations.
The Escape Hybrid was the first hybrid to be built in North America when it was introduced in 2005. It was also the first Hybrid SUV, and it garnered rave reviews, including winning the prestigious North American Truck of the Year in 2005.
Although many skeptics wondered how hybrids would stand up to daily driving, it would appear those fears were unfounded, as the Escape Hybrid has proven to be a sturdy vehicle in San Francisco and New York, where it is used as a taxi cab.
If you're in the market for a relatively rugged, but practical, compact SUV or Crossover, the Ford Escape is definitely worthy of consideration. It appears to be a reliable and well-liked vehicle that offers more performance, without sacrificing too much fuel economy, compared to its closest rivals. If you can find one of the rarer Hybrid models you'll end up with a vehicle that can get over 30 mpg and still maintain good performance.
You'll have a tough time finding a cylinder-cylinder Escape made prior to 2005, which is probably just as well, as it was underpowered. The new Duratec four-cylinder engine in Escapes made since 2005 offers a much better deal, and the savings in fuel offset the lower performance.
As the Escape is not based on a car platform, it is not a true off-road vehicle, but its AWD system is certainly capable of coping with bad weather conditions on highways and some light driving on smooth trails. However, when it comes to city driving the Escape is far more pleasant compared to a traditional truck-based SUV.
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