Pros: Low entry price; roomy cargo area; rugged trucklike looks; available hybrid model; can parallel park itself

Cons: Soft suspension; small rear seat; sluggish handling; outdated interior and exterior styling

From a visual standpoint, it is getting harder to tell just what distinguishes an SUV from a CUV or even a plain old station wagon. Sleeker shapes, rounded-off rear ends and oversize wheels and tires blur the lines between car and crossover even further. But one little compact SUV still wears the brawny look once so popular with the buying public, a look that says "I'm tough, rugged and ready to play on and off road": the 2012 Ford Escape.

From its boxy, upright design to its thick, plastic cladding, the Escape is all about looking tough. Although it can't really go places where a true 4x4 vehicle like the Jeep Wrangler can, the Escape can tackle snow-covered roads and moderate off-road terrain. The Escape's tall greenhouse provides excellent headroom as well as a tall and versatile cargo area, and its back seat, although not the most spacious in this class, creates a hospitable environment for everything from two full-size adults to a pair of child safety seats.

For the record, an all-new European-inspired 2013 Escape is on its way, due in the dealer showroom sometime this spring. If you can't wait, there is still a lot to like about the current car, including the availability of a hybrid version, a choice of 4- or 6-cylinder engines and some of the most modern electronic audio and communication technology available today.

Comfort & Utility

Climbing inside the 2012 Ford Escape brings an unusual blend of the old and the new. The tall side glass, squared-off instrument panel and upright seating definitely give off a more trucklike vibe. But the cool blue dash lighting, SYNC audio system and voice-activated navigation send a more modern message. The small control knobs and hard plastics covering the dash and door panels definitely date the Escape, but the overall interior is still pleasant, with firm supportive seats, a well-insulated cabin and cool options such as the rear-seat DVD entertainment unit. The Escape has more front-seat legroom than most of its competitors, although it falls a few inches short when it comes to stretching room for the rear-seat passengers.

One big advantage for the Escape is its V6 engine, which allows for a 3500-pound tow rating - more than the Honda CR-V or Kia Sportage but not as great as the Jeep Liberty. On the downside, the Escape doesn't offer a third-row seat, something you can find on the Toyota RAV-4.

Technology

For an aging, entry-level compact SUV, the Escape surprises with its available features. To begin, you can opt for a 320-watt premium audio system and the SYNC voice-activated communications system. SYNC allows you to voice-control your Bluetooth enabled cell phone as well as music from your iPod. Voice control can also be used on the optional navigation system, which includes a rear backup camera.
One of the Escape's coolest options is Ford's Active Park Assist parallel parking feature, which can actually parallel-park the vehicle while prompting you with voice commands to operate the shift lever and brake. Also high on our favorites list is the external keypad locking and unlocking device, a great feature for those times when it's inconvenient to carry the remote key fob.

Performance & Fuel Economy

The Escape's standard engine is a 2.5-liter 4-cylinder good for 171 horsepower and 171 pound-feet of torque. When equipped with the five-speed manual transmission, this engine delivers fuel economy of 23 mpg city and 28 mpg highway. The automatic-transmission models get slightly lower numbers of 21/28 mpg with front-wheel drive and 20/27 mpg with 4WD.
The Escape's 3.0-liter V6 is much more robust, with 240 horsepower and 223 pound-feet of torque. The V6 is available only with the six-speed automatic and is E85 compatible. The EPA rates the Escape's 3.0-liter engine at 19 mpg city/25 mpg highway with front-wheel drive and 18 city/23 highway with AWD.

For those interested in greener technology, the Escape Hybrid has an advanced gasoline/electric powertrain that gets an EPA estimated 34 mpg city and 31 mpg highway.

Safety

In addition to standard electronic traction and stability control, the 2012 Ford Escape and Escape Hybrid feature front side-impact and front and rear head curtain airbags. Safety aids such as the Reverse Sensing System and rear backup camera alert the driver to objects behind the vehicle. Standard built-in spotter mirrors help reduce side blind spots.

Driving Impressions

If you're looking for a carlike ride and nimble handling, you'll either need to wait for the 2013 Escape or mosey on over to your Honda or Toyota dealer. Not that the Escape drives badly, mind you. It just has a more trucklike feel to its suspension, steering and overall ride and handling. The 2.5-liter four is a bit coarse, but it gets the job done and should be enough to satisfy those who prefer economy over power. The 3.0-liter V6 changes the Escape's mood, providing it with the power to merge and pass with gusto, and delivers a smoother, more refined feel.

We like the tall seating position inside the Escape, but the dash feels a bit low, and the steering wheel is oddly placed. There is great visibility all around, although we highly recommend opting for the rear-vision camera as it's easy to overlook objects directly behind the Escape's high rear end.

Other Cars to Consider

Honda CR-V - You'll find a fresher look and a more civilized ride in the CR-V, as well as a more expensive base price and less high-tech features.

Chevrolet Equinox - The Equinox offers many of the Escape's high-end audio and communications features, plus it has more interior room and gets better gas mileage. But, the Escape costs less than the Equinox and it has more ground clearance and a shorter overall length.

Jeep Liberty - The Liberty has the same rugged, boxy look as the Escape plus more ground clearance and a larger back seat. However, the Escape offers a choice of fuel savings with 4-cylinder and hybrid models, which are not available with the Jeep.

AutoTrader Recommends

Despite its lofty name, the Escape Limited marks the best value in the lineup. Priced at about $26,000, the Limited offers a number of innovative features and opens the door to most options. Add in navigation, the audio upgrade and Reverse Sensing System and moonroof, and the 4-cylinder model remains around $30,000. While the hybrid models do offer superior fuel economy, their $34,000 asking price makes it bit difficult to justify the few extra miles per gallon you'd get over the gasoline-powered Limited.

author photo

Joe Tralongo started in the industry writing competitive comparison books for a number of manufacturers, before moving on in 2000 to become a freelance automotive journalist. He's well regarded for his keen eye for detail, as well as his ability to communicate complex mechanical terminology into user-friendly explanations.

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