Pity the Ford Motor Co.
The nation’s No. 2 automaker has spent most of the past year wading chest-high through bad press about rollovers, questionable tires and some of its management practices. And even when Ford tried to do something right — such as introduce the new-for-2001 Ford Escape sport-utility vehicle — the SUV had more recalls than an iron parachute.
Too bad, because once the bugs are ironed about, the Escape is just what Ford needed to offer its many customers who remain head-over-heels in love with SUVs.
Escape is a reasonably sized, nicely styled, competent-handling, versatile sport-ute that can take on most roads when equipped with a V-6 engine.
Let me emphasize that last point: Get the V-6 engine, or get your head examined.
The 3-liter V-6 Duratec engine rated at 201 horsepower is a $1,480 option — including on the Escape XLT 4X2 model that was my test vehicle. The extra money is worth it, like water in a swimming pool is worth it. I can’t imagine operating the Escape on a regular basis with the 127 horsepower, in-line-4 motor, especially off-road — just not enough muscle for the job.
Now that the power issue is settled, let’s move on to other matters. Escape looks good. It’s compact and uncomplicated, with a front grille-area that actually makes the SUV look bigger than it is. No wild logos or unnecessary chrome in sight. What a relief.
Step inside — an easy job, with no running board necessary to propel yourself into the seat — and you encounter an entirely functional cockpit and room for five larger-than-normal-size human beings. Controls are sweetly simple on a fairly basic dash.
The interior is not dripping with walnut and crystal-quality fixtures, but who cares? The Escape starts at less than $20,000 — a serious bargain in a world where too many SUVs can be had only with house-payment-type financing.
On surface streets and freeways, my Escape was most nimble — entirely what I had hoped for out of a sport-ute with a base curb weight of just less than 3,000 pounds. The V-6 handled every gotta-have-it horsepower situation I encountered, including the dreaded high-speed merge into a phone-booth-size opening on the freeway.
Why didn’t Ford do this sooner? It’s a cute little SUV that will haul the kids, haul the groceries and haul the luggage — without breaking the budget and with enough body armor to handle the comparatively modest off-road outings taken by most motorists.
Earlier this year, Ford was probably asking itself why it introduced the Escape at all. By February, the Escape had been through five recalls — glitches ranging from faulty cruise control to shaky windshield wipers.
In its defense, Ford said that none of the Escape’s problems came close to the monster-size ordeal of the Ford Explorer, and auto industry analysts generally praised Ford for quickly moving on recalls when defects wer e detected — as opposed to sitting around and arguing about whether a recall was necessary.
With the bugs worked out, Escape should stand up well in the ultra-competitive SUV marketplace.
Some of the Escape’s competition will come from its very close cousin, the Mazda Tribute, which is essentially an Escape in Mazda wrapping. No surprise there; Mazda engineers worked with Ford to produce the Escape/Tribute package.
The Escape’s price is hard to beat — the XLS version with two-wheel drive starts at $18,185 — but my XLT had a nice “Comfort Group” option that’s worth consideration. The $870 package included an overhead console, leather-wrapped steering wheel, sport bucket seats with leather trim and a six-way power driver’s seat.
Other positives include the Escape’s safety rating (maximum five-star ratings from the National Highway Transportation Safety Administration in three of four categories for front/side crash tests and a strong four-star at ng for the front passenger in frontal-impact tests) and a robust 3,500-pound trailering capacity when equipped with the proper towing equipment package.
Things Ford could improve in the next model year include cutting down on interior noise — and the recalls, of course.
2001 Ford Escape XLT (4X2)
Engine: 3-liter V-6 with 201 horsepower at 5,900 revolutions per minute and 196 pounds/foot torque at 4,700 rpm.
EPA fuel economy: 18 miles per gallon city; 24 mpg highway
Transmission: Four-speed automatic with overdrive
Cargo volume: 33 cubic feet behind rear seat; 64.8 cubic feet with rear seat folded down
Fuel tank: 16 gallons
Base curb weight: 2,991 pounds
Track: 61.2 inches front, 61 inches rear
Height: 69.1 inches
Length: 173 inches
Wheelbase: 103.1 inches
Width: 79.4 inches.
Ground clearance: 7.8 inches
Tires: P235/70R16 all-season radials
Maximum towing capacity: 3,500 pounds (with trailering package).
Final assembly site: Kansas City, Mo.