Pros: Distinctive character among car-based SUVs, styling, steering, efficient packaging
Cons: Feels tippier than shorter competitors, no longer the quickest, smallish front seats
Others entered the car-based SUV earlier, but Ford made the biggest splash when it introduced the Escape in the 2001 model year. The Escape seemed to have it all: the appearance of a real SUV, a V6 to give it the grunt of a real SUV, a spacious interior, and relatively car-like ride and handling. It won nearly every comparison test it entered, and quickly became the best selling compact SUV. In my own test drives I found much to like, but also an uncomfortable drivers seat and excessive road noise.
This spring the Escape faces its toughest challenge yet, as Chevrolet is finally fielding a competitive product, the 2005 Equinox. I drove an Equinox within days after the first ones arrived my local dealership, and found much to like about it, including striking exterior styling, very car-like ride and handling, and limo-level rear legroom.
Perhaps sensing that the 2004 Escape would be at a disadvantage, Ford rushed a revised 2005 model to dealers just in advance of the Equinox. (It might be a coincidence that both 2005s were introduced within weeks of each other, but I doubt it.) Clearly a test drive was in order.
Ford Escape Reliability
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For 2005 the Escapes exterior styling has been revised, but youll have to look closely to notice the new bumper fascias. They appear somewhat more rugged than those they replaced, but the only significant difference is that round foglights have replaced rectangular ones. With the gray bumpers on the XLS and XLT I find the new fascias a minor improvement, but with the Limiteds body-color bumpers they look a bit too rounded and cute.
The basic character of the Escapes styling remains unchanged. The Escape is styled to resemble a small Explorer. The overall look is sporty with hints of both cuteness and aggressiveness. With its monotone scheme, the Limited (which I drove in 2003) loses a bit of aggressiveness but gains sophistication. In a way this is more honest, as the Escape isnt really designed for the serious off-road action suggested by the other models gray cladding. I suppose its one for the ladies and whoever else gets turned on by the idea of a glitzy SUV. For those who want a tough-looking SUV, the gray-clad XLT I drove this time around better fits the bill. Even in its fifth model year this remains an attractive vehicle, with more of an authentic SUV flavor than any other compact SUV. The Chevrolet Equinox is also an attractive vehicle, but in a much more car-like idiom.
The interior is conventional Ford SUV in appearance, with the exception of the white-faced gauges. Since these were introduced by Nissan with the 1989 Maxima SE, they've been springing up inside many cars that aspire to be thought of as sporty. If you like them, chalk up one point for the Ford.
The interior, which initially felt a bit cheap, was first upgraded in 2003. A large trim panel surrounding the stereo and HVAC controls in the center of the dash received a trendy metallic finish in place of matte black. This was a major improvement, as the black panel cheapened the whole interior, but this isnt the best application of the stuff. (Its also used on the power window panels on the doors.) I saw the 2003 Escape in two interiors, the two-tone tan in the Limited I drove and the two-tone gray of an XLT. (Two-tone leather is new for 2003.) With the tan the metallic plastic doesnt look quite right, and with the gray it blends in a bit much. The Limited alone was available in a third interior color, black. I suspect that with the black the metallic trim comes into its own, as it has in other cars with this contrasting combination.
The metallic trim did move the interior a bit upscale, but it was still far from the most stylish and richest in appearance. For example, the Jeep Liberty and Subaru Forester both had more attractive interiors. Compared to those, the Escape interior is merely acceptable rather than noteworthy.
For 2005 the interior has again been revised. The finish on the trim panels is either unchanged or changed so little it was hard to notice even looking at a 2005 parked next to a 2004. The instrument graphics are slightly differentonly the speedo and tach now have white faces. There is, however, one major change to the interior. After offering only a column-mounted shifter for four years, the Escape now has a proper center console complete with an attractive, solid-feeling shift lever. The new console blends perfectly with the existing instrument panel. All in all, the most attractive Escape interior yet. While some of the imports feel more upscale, the Chevrolets feels cheaper. The cloth seats inside an Escape I peered into could use some improvement. The leather in the XLT I drove, though obviously a budget-grade leather, helps.
This interior is extremely well packaged and very functional. There is plenty of room in both the front and rear seats, surprising given the length of the vehicle. The front seat is very high even in its lowest setting (a power drivers seat is standard on the top trim levels). The view out is exceptionally clear in all directions. Looking forward, the dash is well below the drivers line of sight, and the windshield header well above it. The windshield is large. All in all, a match for the driving position in any SUV.
In comparison, the driving position in the Equinox is much more car-like. You sit lower and at a greater distance from a more steeply raked windshield. Those seeking a car in disguise will prefer the Chevy, while those who like the feel of driving a conventional SUV will prefer the Ford. As much as I prefer cars to SUVs, I found something very likable about the high driving position and relatively upright windshield of the Escape.
In the 2003 the front seats are awful. The cushion was very small, ending only a bit more than halfway down my not very long thigh. Worse, the panel on the leading edge of the leather seats was heavily stuffed, producing a bulge I found mildly uncomfortable the entire time I drove the vehicle. I sat in a cloth 2002 after driving the 2003, and it was not nearly as bad; so either the seats were redesigned for 2003 or the leather was more heavily stuffed than the cloth. The 2005 XLT I drove was upholstered in leather, and while the seats remain a bit on the small side I noted no discomfort this time around. Ford claims to have revised the seats for improved comfort, and the revisions seem to have been effective.
The 2002 XLT I sat in had the optional step bars along the sides. I felt that these got in the way more than they helped. A standard grab handle on each windshield pillar eases entry and exit.
In the rear seat, head and leg room are both plentiful. You wont find the Equinoxs forty-inches of rear legroom here, but the Escapes rear seat cushion is higher off the floor so legs dont need to stretch much to obtain good thigh support. Only the total lack of contourthe rear seat is about as flat as the proverbial park benchkeeps the Escapes rear seat from being an excellent place to spend some serious time.
I took my one-year-old along for the test drive. At first I could not find the latch for the child seats tether. Then I spotted three near the back of the ceiling. They look tacked on here, and when in use belts will fill the drivers rearward view. Other SUVs Ive driven had these latches on the seatbacks. This is a better place.
There's plenty of room for stuff, too. There is a huge center storage compartment between the front seats. The rear seat folds flat in two sections to create a nice square cargo area. There is less cargo room than in mid-size SUVs, but most people will find it more than adequate, seat up or folded.
I still do not care for the complexity of the rear seat. You must remove the headrest, then tilt the cushion forward, then fold the seatback down. The mechanism that allows the seat cushion to pivot feels a bit flimsy to me. If the owner is careful, though, it should hold up. It would be nice if fewer steps were involved, though. Putting up the seat is a particular hassle, as you must hold all of the seatbelt buckles in one hand while shoving the cushion back into place with the other. However, this does enable a completely flat load floor, something you wont find in the Equinox.
On the Road
Through 2004 the Escapes base engine was a 127-horsepower 2.0-liter four. I never drove a four-cylinder Escape, but this doesnt sound like enough to move even the base models 3100-plus pounds. Ford wisely offered the 2.0-liter only with a manual transmission and front-wheel-drive. Few were produced.
For 2005 the Escape gains a new base engine, a 153-horsepower 2.3-liter four that should prove a far better match for the similarly powerful fours in the Honda CR-V and Toyota RAV4. Reflecting this, it is available with an automatic and all-wheel-drive. Ive driven a related engine in the Mazda3 and Mazda6, and it is very smooth for a four, but lacking in low-end torque. While the power output seems adequate, be sure to try before you buy.
Either the four is not yet in production, or the dealer I visited continues to lack faith in its viability, for every 2005 Escape on the lot was equipped with the 200-horsepower 3.0-liter V6. This six is no longer the distinctive feature it once was, as sixes are now also available in the Equinox, Saturn VUE, and Jeep Liberty. Not only this, all of the other sixes produce more power in the frequently used midrange. The Honda-manufactured 3.5-liter in the VUE, with 250 horsepower, is now the clear performance leader.
The 3.0-liter powetrain has been recalibrated and refined for 2005. It does not launch from a dead stop with the verve it used to, but this is actually an improvement. When I first drove the Escape I noted that it was difficult to launch smoothly, as throttle tip-in was very aggressive. At around town speeds the Escapes six feels more than adequately powerful, but again less peppy than I recall. I suspect that the difference is the purely subjective result of the 2005s somewhat more refined nature. Though no paragon of slickness, the revised 3.0 does sound much less coarse than it did. Engine roar at full throttle is especially lower and less objectionable than it used to be. It is generally better for an engine to be smoother and quieter, but this does reduce subjective performance.
At highway speeds the not inconsiderable weight and frontal area of the vehicle begin to take their toll. Performance remains adequate, but nothing to get excited about. If strong acceleration at all speeds is a top priority, then the VUE is the one to get. The Equinoxs engine does furnish a bit more midrange punch, but the difference is not large. The Jeep is the slowest of the bunch thanks to its significantly greater mass.
The Escapes automatic shifts smoothly. The main issue I have with it is that it lacks the fifth gears of the GM competition. A fifth gear would enhance both performance and fuel economy.
The Escapes optional all-wheel-drive system has been revised for 2005. The system is now fully automatic, with no switch to lock the center differential. Im not sure if the center differential now locks automatically when this is necessary, or if this feature has simply been deleted. Either way, if you need a serious off-road vehicle youll be happier in the Jeep Liberty, which in addition to a stouter structure and additional ground clearance has a low-range to handle especially tough terrain. The Escapes system is primarily intended for additional traction on slick roads, and here it should serve well.
Mazda engineered the Escape on a car chassis, with the priority being on-road driveability. Its influence is most evident in the steering. Perhaps because I recently drove the Equinox, which uses GMs somewhat numb electrically-assisted steering system, the Escapes steering felt especially good this time around. Its neither too light nor too heavy, quick but not too quick, precise, andespecially laudable for an SUVdoes a good job communicating what is going on at the tires contact patches. Some kickback is present over rough patches, but this is a price Id readily pay for the level of feedback.
The Escape is a few inches taller than most competitors, the Jeep Liberty being a notable exception. A sense of this height never goes away while driving the Escape, such that in turns the vehicle feels a bit tippy. As this encourages keeping the vehicle within its capabilities it is not entirely a bad thing. I certainly felt more comfortable pushing the Equinox hard through turns, though. Aside from this mild tippy feeling, the Escapes handling is respectable. Lean in turns is moderate. More precisely, the Escape leans noticeably at initial turn-in, but then firms up. Once I got used to this behavior, I felt more confident in the Escapes abilities, but driving the Escape even moderately aggressively still required that my head overrule my gut. In its defense, the chassis has a nice balanced feel to it, largely devoid of the plow all too common with front-wheel-drive platforms. Actually, I can put the character of the Escapes handling in an entirely more positive light. As with the styling and driving position, the above dynamics and general feel of the vehicle lend it much more of a rugged, sporty character than youll find in the much more car-like GM competition.
When I first reviewed the Escape I concluded that its main weakness was excessive road noise. Well, with the 2005 Ford has finally attended to this issue. Though still no Lexus, the Escape now rides significantly more quietly than before. Though not the class leader in this area, it is up to the class average. Road noise is no longer a major weakness. Wind noise remains moderate, as does engine noise while cruising. All in all, the 2005 would be much easier to take a long trip in.
Ride quality has also improved a bit for 2005. Though the suspension remains firm and body motions remain well-controlled, with no rocking or hint of floatiness, some of the edge has been taken off when dealing with patchy pavement.
Overall, the 2005 Escape behaves significantly better than the in earlier model years. It sounds and feels more refined, addressing the vehicles most significant weaknesses. Thankfully, this additional refinement has not been bought at the expense of the Escapes distinctively rugged character. Though Im a car guy, I cannot help but find the Escapes unapologetically SUV flavor appealing.
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The following price information is from when this review was originally written.
The XLT Sport I drove was equipped with the $585 moonroof (a fairly large one), $565 uplevel audio with CD changer, $575 leather, and $75 cargo cover, for a total of $27,830. (With front-wheel-drive the price would have been $1,750 lower.) A similarly equipped Equinox lists for $27,280. However, you can knock $960 off the Escape's sticker by buying the regular XLT, which lacks the Sports darker cladding, white-letter tires, and step bars. A $1,000 rebate on the 2005 Escape increases the XLTs price advantage over the Equinox to about $1,400.
As with the Freestar minivan, if you want your Escapes leather heated you must get the Limited. Not only this, but you must also order a $1,095 Luxury Comfort Package that also includes a reverse sensing system and the uplevel audio. Add in the $445 side curtain airbags not fitted to any of the 2005s on the lot and the list would be $29,060. After adjusting for the reverse sensing system, the Escape Limited still runs about $900 over a similarly loaded Equinox. Even with the $1,000 rebate to equalize matters this is getting pricey. The XLT seems a much better value. If you want seat heaters, I suggest going the aftermarket route.
The revisions for 2005 impressed me. They eliminate the uncomfortable front seats and excessive road noise that formerly plagued the Escape. They also add refinement in many other areas and a more attractive center console. The result is a significantly better vehicle than before despite the very similar exterior appearance. For many people, the Escape will likely be the best choice.
Frankly, many of the vehicles in this class are very good, with priorities being the deciding factor. For a very competent SUV that looks and feels the part, the Escape cannot be beat. For a more carlike appearance and feel the Equinox is an excellent choice. For acceleration and a slighly lower price the VUE might make sense. For the most luxury at the lowest price, check out the Hyundai.
All of these SUVs are car-based, and unsuited for serious off-road driving. If you do intend to venture into the rough stuff, youll be happier in the Jeep Liberty.
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Links to my reviews of related vehicles:
Hyundai Santa Fe