The roomy, carlike Ford Escape sport-utility vehicle was introduced last summer and had the right combination of features to become the top-selling compact sport-utility.
The 2002 version of the Escape has added subseries models to make it appeal to a larger audience. It also has such things as a wider variety of colors and a new $1,155 XLT Sport Package with leather upholstery, unique 16-inch sport wheels and side step bars that look good but are useless for those with large shoes.
New Subseries Models
The basic XLS and higher-line XLT trims remain, but added have been subseries trims called Value, Sport, Choice, Premium and Midnight. It's really all a matter of juggling equipment levels—the higher you go in the trim range, the more equipment is added. The XLT Premium trims even have standard leather upholstery.
Predictably, Escape prices have escalated with the subseries models. Last year's Escape had base prices ranging from $17,850 to $21,025. But the new Escapes go from $18,670 to $25,880. However, even base trims are pretty well-equipped, with such items as air conditioning and power windows, locks and mirrors.
Developed With Mazda
The tightly constructed Escape was developed with Japan's Mazda, which is controlled by Ford. Mazda sells a mechanically identical version called the Tribute, which has cleaner styling and sportier suspension settings. The Escape looks more rugged than the Tribute, although some may dislike the Ford version's black plastic fascia.
It's nice that the $18,155 to $23,915 Tribute is available if you don't exactly like the Escape. However, the Escape probably will have higher resale value because of the more familiar Ford nameplate.
At this writing, the Escape's main rival is the revamped Honda CR-V, which has a 2.4-liter 160-horsepower 4-cylinder engine. The Escape comes with either a 2.0-liter 127-horsepower 4-cylinder (down from a rated 130 last year) and a 3.0-liter V-6, which gains one horsepower from last year for a 201 rating.
The Escape 4-cylinder works with an acceptable 5-speed manual transmission, while V6 trims come with a responsive 4-speed automatic.
Two Drive Systems
Both combinations are offered with either front-drive or an all-wheel-drive system that has a setup which leaves it in fuel-saving front-drive mode until road conditions call for 4-wheel drive to automatically be engaged. But, despite the Escape's rugged look, there's no low-range gearing for rough off-road driving.
Of course, performance isn't nearly as lively with the 4-cylinder. But that engine is economical, providing up to an estimated 23 mpg in the city and 27 on the highway. The V6 isn't as thrifty, but is no fuel hog. It delivers up to an estimated 19 city and 24 highway and can propel the Escape to 60 mph in just 8.5 seconds. .
Owners of most larger sport-utility vehicles can just dream about even the Escape V6's fuel economy, and both Escape engines only need 87-octane gasoline.
Fun To Drive
The Escape comes with four doors and has a tailgate with a flip-up glass area. It has carlike unibody construction and is fun to drive. Steering is accurate. And the all-independent suspension provides a supple ride and stable handling that is enhanced by a wide stance. In fact, the Escape is nearly as wide as the mid-size Ford Explorer four-door trim.
While soft, the brake pedal has a progressive feel and helps allow short stopping distances. Anti-lock brakes are standard on XLT models and optional on XLS versions. Front side airbags are optional for both.
The Escape has plenty of room for four 6-footers, or for five if they're on the slim side because the rear seat is unusually wide for a compact sport-utility. It is easy to get in and out. And occupants sit high in an airy interior that is quiet except for noticeable wind noise at highway speeds.
Gauges can be quickly read and controls are within convenient reach. But finding the ignition switch on the steering column can require groping—especially at night. Too bad the switch wasn't put on the dashboard.
Awkward Transmission Lever
The long automatic transmission shift lever interferes with operation of radio controls—an odd fault that Ford said it will fix before the end of the model year.
The cargo area is generous, and the entire rear seat can be easily folded forward to significantly increase cargo space.
With a large number of people shifting to smaller sport-utilities that are less trucklike and more economical, the Escape should continue to do well.