Pros: Agile handling, smooth ride, great V6, easy entry/exit, lots of room, trip computer, sound system
Cons: Smallish fuel tank, no manual transmission option with the V6 (STILL), Limited's limited color selection
My 2002 Ford Explorer Eddie Bauer's lease was going to be up soon, and my Ford dealer was after me to trade it in early. With gas prices soaring in June of 2004, I thought it would be a good time to look around at other SUVs and SUV-type vehicles. I like the utility and space in an SUV.
Before I went to my dealer (expecting to buy a Ranger or maybe another Explorer), I looked at the Subaru Forester, Honda CR-V, Toyota RAV4, Chrysler PT Cruiser, and Saturn Vue.
While the dealership experience at Saturn is first-rate, the cars aren't. The Vue's interior seemed cheap and flimsy. On the road, the steering was as vague as an old Buick's, and the handling seemed clumsy. But the worst part was finding out later that the NHTSA had tested two 2004 Vues (one FWD, one AWD) and the suspensions on both models COLLAPSED. No thanks. And with the Chevy Equinox using the same platform, a Chinese-made engine (an "American Revolution"???), and the lack of a flip-up rear window, I took a pass on the Equinox as well. Consumer Reports also listed the Vue and Equinox as second-from-last and LAST in a recent review of small SUVs.
The PT is looking a little old now, and it's a little low to the ground for me. While it has clever storage space, lots of features for the money, and a VERY nice manual transmission (which I wish I could find on more cars), its lack of AWD or 4WD made me look elsewhere.
The Forester is a nice car for sure, but its one big failing is the low seats. I felt like I was peering through the steering wheel instead of over it. It felt substantial enough, and the drivetrain feels VERY good, but I didn't feel like I had a great view out.
The CR-V is a winner. With its drivetrain and handling, this was my clear second choice, although I don't like side-opening cargo doors.
The RAV4 felt a little "tinnier" than the CR-V and Forester, and, as with the CR-V, I'm not a fan of cargo doors that open to the side.
Finally, I went back to my Ford dealer and drove one of two Escape Limiteds on the lot. While the Escape XLT Sport (the next model down from the top-of-the-line Limited) LOOKS better, with the Metallic Gray lower section, RWL tires, and step bars, I liked the Limited's leather, reverse-sensing system, diagnostics center and trip computer, automatic headlamps, and heated seats and mirrors.
As far as the driving experience, the Escape was easily the best of the cars I tested. The steering is right-now accurate, the handling is agile, and the ride is firm but very controlled, even over lousy roads. The interior feels very solid; nothing creaks, squeaks, rattles, or shakes, and the controls feel substantial. The 3.0-liter, 200HP DOHC V6 is a great engine, it produces lots of power and some very cool sounds (especially at low speeds), and it's practically silent at highway speeds. The 6-disc changer and subwoofer produce aftermarket-like sound quality and features, including loading the next CD while the last song on the previous CD is playing in memory. The music is uninterrupted. The display also shows info that some stations are now sending, such as station name, artist, and title. And I REALLY like Ford's accessory delay, which keeps the stereo, windows, and moonroof working after the engine is shut off, for up to ten minutes, or until someone opens one of the front doors. Ford had this years ago, and I was surprised to find it lacking on the CR-V and the others.
I bought that Limited the next day. I ordered the factory step bars from the XLT Sport, which installed easily. I replaced the standard Donnelly automatic-dimming mirror with a Donnelly 19701 automatic-dimming compass/temperature mirror, and I replaced the outside mirrors with Muth LED signal mirrors. Now it has almost everything I liked in my last Explorer, and it's MUCH more fun to drive.
When the Escape was introduced in 2001, Car And Driver Magazine said, "We don't often use the word 'phenomenal'. This is one of those times." Another head-to-head test in 2001, with 10 other small SUVs, had the Escape and Mazda Tribute (the Escape's corporate twin) tied for first.
After six months, I'm still very happy with my Escape Limited. I've had no trouble, and have taken it on four long trips so far. Three complaints are minor: the fuel tank is a little small at 16.5 gallons. I still wish Ford would offer the V6 with a 5- or 6-speed manual transmission in the higher-priced models. And I really wanted Sonic Blue Metallic or Blazing Copper Metallic paint (colors available on the lower models), but Red Fire was the best of the limited color selections for the Limited (no pun intended).
Four years later, and with all of the improvements in the 2005 models (especially in solidity, ride, noise reduction, and features), I think the Escape is still the at head of the small SUV class.