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Expert Reviews 1 of 5
By Joe Wiesenfelder
October 14, 2008
The Escape has been one of the best-selling compact SUVs for close to a decade, along with the Honda CR-V and Toyota RAV4. Though it has some shortcomings, incremental improvements make it more attractive every year. The 2008 model year brought interior and exterior styling upgrades and a quieter cabin, and 2009 brings two long-overdue milestones: improved drivetrains and higher crash-test ratings. Despite the increase in power from the four- and six-cylinder engines, the Escape gets better mileage. The most efficient Escape is a hybrid version, which is detailed in a separate review. (See a side-by-side comparison with the 2008 model).
I drove two Escape XLTs: a four-cylinder with front-wheel drive and a V-6 with all-wheel drive. Exterior & Styling The Escape was the most traditionally SUV-looking compact SUV when it first came out, and with its 2008 restyling it took another step away from cute and toward ute. It looks more like a Ford Explorer now, but with a plunging chrome grille in some trim levels that would be equally at home on a Volkswagen or Audi. If you like the effect on those cars, you'll probably like it here. With the exception of the Jeep Patriot, compact SUVs seem to be going in a more refined, less tough styling direction — while still trying not to be too cute — with some success. There are no cosmetic changes for 2009, but Ford has reworked the spoiler under the front bumper and added rear tire spoilers, which look like squat little mudflaps in front of the rear wheels. Both are steps to improve aerodynamics and thus efficiency.
The lower two of three trim levels, the XLS and XLT have the full chrome treatment, including the grille, the roof rails (standard on the XLT) and the trim above the rear license plate. The top trim level, the Limited, is all body-colored, with standard black roof rails. If you like the shiny stuff, you can get it on a Limited, too, with the optional Chrome Appearance Package, which my Escape Limited had. Fog lights are standard on the two higher trims.
All models come with 16-inch wheels; they're steel on the XLS and varying styles of aluminum alloy on the higher trim levels. Seventeen-inchers are optional on all Escapes except the XLS, which can upgrade to aluminum, but only with a 16-inch diameter. Ride & Handling Thanks to changes in shock-absorber tuning for 2009, the Escape rides better than ever. Like most unibody SUVs, it's still firm, but it isn't bouncy like the truck-based, body-on-frame type used to be. It damps out the harshest road surfaces better than the 2008 and the 2009 Jeep Patriot, a close American-made competitor.
The Escape is maneuverable and handles reasonably well, though it has always felt a bit more top-heavy to me than many car-based compacts, and the rollover rating detailed in the Safety section below supports this notion. I must say, though, the new suspension tuning and rear stabilizer bar seem to decrease the body roll and make the Escape feel a little more grounded. An electronic stability system is standard on both front- and all-wheel-drive models, and that lends confidence. Going & Stopping The Escape's new drivetrains were overdue. The 2008's 2.3-liter four-cylinder and a 3.0-liter V-6 both teamed with a four-speed automatic transmission in a market that was moving toward five- and six-speed automatics (or CVTs). Now the automatic is a six-speed, and you can still get a five-speed manual with the base four-cylinder and front-wheel drive. With the automatic transmission and either engine, you get your choice of front- or all-wheel drive.
Perhaps the most relevant change for 2009 is the new 2.5-liter four-cylinder, which produces 171 horsepower, a healthy 12 percent improvement over the 2.3-liter's 153 hp. The first Escape's 2.0-liter just wasn't powerful enough, and the 2.3-liter made it a more viable model, but it was poky and not a good choice for anyone who wanted to drive in hilly country and/or with a full load. Between the larger engine and six-speed, the 2009 is a whole new deal. It's by no means a rocket, but its appeal is much broader, just in time for the highest interest in four-cylinders we've seen in decades.
Though it's the same displacement, the 3.0-liter V-6 is also more powerful, up to 240 from 200 hp. Throw in the six-speed, and the 0-60 mph time is down almost 2 seconds, a welcome improvement when a 2008 Escape Limited 4x4 took about 10 seconds to do the job. The new transmission's contribution is overwhelmingly positive, but I do think it needs further refinement. It sometimes suffers from indecision when you'd like it to pick a gear — especially when trying to pass in the four-cylinder. It seems like automakers are becoming conservative in the way they calibrate their automatics, to improve fuel economy. This makes for less frequent kickdown.
Whatever Ford has done seems to have worked. All versions of the 2009 except the four-cylinder manual have higher EPA highway mileage figures. The four-cylinder automatic is up 2 mpg in front-wheel drive and 1 mpg in 4x4 versions. The V-6 has gained 2 highway mpg across the board. Getting more power and improved mileage is a very good thing.
Compact SUV Gas Mileage
EPA-estimated city/highway, mpg
4-cyl. manual FWD
4-cyl. manual 4WD
4-cyl. automatic FWD
4-cyl. automatic 4WD
V-6 automatic FWD
V-6 automatic 4WD
*With 2.0-liter engine; 2.4-liter is 21/25 mpg. **With CVT and Freedom Drive I 4WD; with Freedom Drive II 4WD: 20/22 mpg. Source: EPA estimates for 2009 models.
Along with the standard stability system come antilock brakes and traction control. Another $1,750 gets you four-wheel drive in any trim level, but only with the automatic transmission. The system is essentially fully automatic all-wheel drive that you don't have to monkey around with.
The Escape has rear drum and front disc brakes, where competitors like the Honda CR-V, Hyundai Tucson and Toyota RAV4 have four-wheel discs. The Jeep Patriot has rear drums only on its lowest front-wheel-drive trim level. The Inside Ford restyled the interior for 2008, adding dark gauges with blue backlighting and a high-mounted display. The readouts are separated from the controls they represent, which drew mixed reactions. For example, the temperature settings for the dual-zone climate control are shown in the high display, even though the knobs are low — below the navigation screen, should you choose the option. Also, the display's center characters are blue, but the flanking digits are pale green. You don't have to be an artiste to have a problem with this.
You can't do anything about that, but you can vary the illumination color of the cupholders and footwells if you opt for the Leather Comfort Package, which also includes leather upholstery, as you might have guessed. Our two test cars are a great example of how different trim levels and/or equipment can vary in ways you might not expect. Specifically, I preferred the standard interior over the more expensive one with leather. Same trim level, XLT, but I found the fabric to be of higher quality — for what it is — than the leather, which is too shiny and seemed low-grade. It's about execution — I've seen genuine wood that looks like plastic, and plastic that you'd swear is real wood.
The cloth model's color palette also worked better for me. I'm not usually an artiste myself, but the leather model's darker "charcoal" color made the center control panel's faux aluminum — if that's what they were going for — look desperately unconvincing. It blended in better with the other Escape's lighter "stone" shades. Each trim level has its own upholstery grade: cloth, premium cloth and leather in the XLS, XLT and Limited, respectively, so be sure you know what you'll be getting if you order.
Overall, the Escape's materials are now good quality, but they aren't up to the level of some newer models, including the redesigned Saturn Vue.
Ford took steps last year to quiet the Escape's cabin, with some success, but wind noise is still plenty noticeable at higher speeds. A couple of our editors complained about the engine noise in the four-cylinder, but I disagree. Tastes differ, but my tolerance for noise is less than most. (Chicago is home to cicadas, the loudest insects in the world, and I once plotted to rear a colony of cicada-killing wasps — yes, they exist — just to get some peace.) There's a difference between noise and sound. Small engines produce sound when they're revving, and this one's a bit raspy under heavy acceleration, but many sound wimpier than this one. Thanks to the jump from four speeds to six, it needn't rev as high in normal driving, making it more livable than ever.
The front seats are reasonably roomy and comfortable, but standard manual adjustments are few in the XLS. A driver's height adjustment comes with power seats in the XLT and Limited trim levels. The steering wheel tilts but unfortunately doesn't telescope. Unfortunately, the backseat has less legroom than the class leaders, and it doesn't adjust forward and back as some newer SUVs allow. Though the seats fold flat, the backrest angle isn't adjustable, either.
Storage provisions in the cabin include a modest-sized glove compartment and door pockets. The center storage console has a couple unique facets: A small removable tray can be attached to the back of the console, behind the cupholders that serve the backseat. As one of my photos shows, the main bin also comes out, and the space underneath is remarkably roomy. Safety For 2009, the Escape (and its sister models, the Mazda Tribute and Mercury Mariner) finally reach parity with the overwhelming majority of small SUVs in Insurance Institute for Highway Safety crash tests. Its Acceptable front-impact rating is now Good, one step up and the highest rating possible. Equipped with the standard side-impact and side curtain airbags, called Safety Canopy, the Escape scores Good in the side-impact test.
In government rollover ratings, the Escape is one of only two car-based SUVs with a rating of three stars rather than four; the other is the Honda Element. This means these two have a higher percentage chance of rolling over in a single-vehicle accident than do the other car-based models — including all other compacts tested. The other three-star SUVs are truck-based models; this type is better known for having a higher center of gravity, though some truck-based SUVs do score four stars.
Fortunately, the electronic stability system is supplemented by Roll Stability Control, which comes only on SUVs from Ford-owned brands, including the feature's originator, Volvo. It's the only system with a sensor that actually detects the beginning of a rollover and can act to stop it. If a rollover does occur, the curtain airbags deploy and stay inflated long enough to protect occupants and prevent their ejection. Cargo & Towing The Escape's liftgate is a plus. The rear window lifts independently, which is helpful when you want to throw something in quickly or access the cargo area when there's not enough clearance to open the whole liftgate. The full liftgate approach is far better than the side-hinged swing gate on the Toyota RAV4. The RAV4 is particularly troublesome because it opens toward the curb, forcing you to load cargo from the street side.
With a cargo volume of 29.2 cubic feet behind the backseat and 66.3 cu. ft. with the backseat folded, the Escape is closer in capacity to the Patriot and Tucson. The CR-V and RAV4 have roughly 36 cu. ft. behind their rear seats and about 73 cu. ft. maximum.
Folding the 60/40-split backseat flat still requires flipping the cushion forward and removing the head restraints. I can live with the cushion thing, but removing and replacing head restraints is a drag, and many newer models have simpler solutions.
The Escape's towing capacity is unchanged despite the power increases. The base model can handle 1,500-pound trailers, and V-6 versions can tow 2,000 pounds as equipped or 3,500 pounds with the addition of an optional Towing Package. This is a healthy amount for a front-wheel-drive-based model in this class. For higher capacities, you typically have to opt for a rear-wheel-drive-based model, like the Jeep Liberty. Escape in the Market Ford has six SUV models. For an idea of where the Escape fits, here are some of the most important specifications:
Ford SUVs Compared
Exterior dimensions (length/width/height, in inches)
Turning circle (feet)
EPA mileage (city/highway, mpg)
Towing capacity (this trim/model maximum, lbs.)
Cargo volume (behind row 3/2/1, cu. ft.)
Passenger volume (cu. ft.)
Escape XLS manual 4-cyl. FWD (5 seats)
Edge SE FWD (5 seats)
Explorer XLT V-6 RWD (5 or 7 seats)
Taurus X SEL FWD (6-7 seats)
Expedition XLT RWD (5-9 seats)
2009 Flex SE FWD (6-7 seats)
*Seven-seat model Source: Manufacturers, EPA
Thanks to incremental improvements topped off by the new drivetrains, the Escape is suddenly more competitive than it's been since its early years in the narrow category of car-based SUVs. In terms of refinement, it has an edge over the Jeep Compass, and its mileage gains put it closer to the RAV4 and best-selling CR-V. With gas prices high and drivers downsizing, it couldn't have come at a better time.