The verdict: The 2016 Ford Escape’s styling is about as exciting as a slice of bread. As with many good sandwiches, though, the good stuff is inside, this time in the form of its excellent new Sync 3 multimedia system.
Versus the competition: The Escape has been a dim bulb amid many bright lights in the compact SUV class. However, the new-for-2016 Sync 3 multimedia system is a cut above and makes the Escape stand out in the segment.
Escape competitors include the Mazda CX-5, Honda CR-V and Toyota RAV4; compare them here. The upgrade to Sync 3 is the only big change for 2016; compare the 2015 and 2016 Escape here.
The Escape got a dramatic styling update for the 2013 model year, ditching its trucky silhouette for a more angular profile and a sleek, bug-like face. In the years since, it’s held up well and remains a handsome, if conservatively styled, SUV compared with the sporty, aggressive CX-5 and the awkward, blocky CR-V. An update for 2017 will bring a larger grille, which should help keep the Escape’s look contemporary.
A trio of engines are available, and I found the optional turbocharged 2.0-liter four-cylinder in my test SE model to be just right. With 231 horsepower, it’s the most robust engine in the stable, providing quick, smooth takeoffs and not a hint of turbo lag. The Escape’s six-speed automatic aptly delivers power on demand for strain-free highway passing and hill climbs.
Fuel economy is just OK at an estimated 22/30/25 mpg city/highway/combined with front-wheel drive. I’m not convinced the performance gains are worth the 2.0-liter’s $1,195 price premium. Base S models are equipped with a 168-hp, 2.5-liter four-cylinder rated 22/31/25 mpg; though it’s slower and cruder, fuel economy is a smidge better. Midlevel SE trims get a standard 173-hp, turbocharged 1.6-liter engine rated 23/32/26 mpg. To boot, competitors offer better economy from their standard engines: The 2016 Honda CR-V is rated 26/33/29, the Mazda CX-5’s base engine is 26/35/29 and the Toyota RAV4 is estimated to get 23/30/26 mpg.
The Escape with the 2.0-liter engine is pleasant to drive, with surprising pep, direct steering, confident handling and great bump absorption, but the CX-5 is much more fun, with an agility unmatched in the class. The Escape trumps the others in quietness, however, with better road isolation than all three competitors.
The midlevel SE’s cabin is a snore in both materials and design. The armrests are sufficiently padded, but the rest of the interior is trimmed in hard plastic and shiny fake metal. Some rickety, flimsy-feeling pieces — like plastic bits around the front seat’s overhead map lights and sunglasses holder — convey cheapness.
The leather-trimmed seats and their patterned cloth inserts add some life to an otherwise forgettable cabin. In front, they’re snugly bolstered for a comfy, cozy fit. In back, they’re less supportive but not uncomfortable.
The backseat reclines but doesn’t slide, and space back there is less than generous. The Escape offers only 36.8 inches of rear legroom, well shy of the CX-5 (39.3), CR-V (38.3) and RAV4 (37.2). It’s competitive when it comes to rear headroom, matching the CX-5 and offering a smidge more than the CR-V and RAV4.
The previous Escape’s MyFord Touch multimedia system was a deal-breaker for many with its confounding menu structure, unresponsive screen and useless voice-recognition feature. The new Sync 3, though, might actually be a deal-maker for shoppers. The new system is clean-looking, intuitive to use and a breath of fresh air compared not just to the old one, but also to competitors’ setups; it’s easier than the CR-V’s and RAV4’s systems, and rivals the Mazda CX-5’s for ease of use.
The screen sits high on the dash for convenient visibility, and the graphics are big and clear. Better still, buttons and knobs are back, replacing the old unit’s capacitive touch buttons. Below the screen are much-missed tuning and seek buttons, as well as a volume knob. The clean look also translates to a clean user experience; there’s no learning curve to master the audio and navigation menus, and the touch-screen is responsive.
The climate controls are separate knobs and buttons below the screen, and although they’re pinky-sized, when you change the temp or fan speed, the action is displayed on the touch-screen for better visibility. Bonus: Using the touch-screen to control climate functions is also a snap.
Perhaps most surprising is that the voice recognition functionality was spot-on during my test — especially rewarding because its inaccuracy the last time I tested it was endlessly frustrating. With the push of a steering-wheel-mounted button, I was able to find a Starbucks and set it as my destination using voice commands. Yes, it took several voice-prompted steps to get me to that Starbucks, but there were no missteps along the way.
Similarly, once my Android phone was paired via Bluetooth, I was able to quickly launch the Pandora app and stream music within a few seconds. I did, however, encounter an odd limitation with Sync 3’s Pandora interface: It’s limited to displaying only eight stations on the screen. I have over 50 stations in my account, and the only way to access the full list is to use the voice command system and run through the station menu. It worked, but it’s not as easy as punching a button on a screen.
Small-items storage is lacking. The tiny center console is very deep but also unusably narrow. It contains two USB ports and one 12-volt outlet, but only room to hold one small device. A pair of console-area cupholders and a pair of bottleholders in the door are the only other storage spaces for the front seats.
The cargo area is wide and has a low liftover height for easy package maneuverability, but many competitors offer much more room. With 34.3 cubic feet of space behind the rear seat, it trails the CR-V (37.2) and RAV4 (38.4), but ekes out a bit more room than the CX-5 (34.1).
The seats fold flat in a 60/40 split via a backseat-mounted lever, but here the CX-5 trumps the Escape. The Mazda’s seats fold in a 40-20-40 split, making them more versatile for hauling different combinations of people and cargo.
The 2016 Ford Escape trails competitors in terms of both crash tests and safety features. It’s rated four out of five stars overall in National Highway Traffic Safety Administration crash tests. That’s the same as the Mazda CX-5, but the Honda CR-V and Toyota RAV4 have five-star ratings. In Insurance Institute for Highway Safety testing, the Escape received a poor rating in the small-overlap front test, and it lacks a forward collision prevention system. Competitors fared much better in IIHS testing: The CR-V, CX-5 and RAV4 all have an available forward collision prevention system and are Top Safety Pick Plus designees, representing the institute’s highest honor.
A backup camera is standard on the Escape, as is the MyKey programmable key system, which helps parents encourage safe teen driving. Parents can program audio system volume limits, set a top vehicle speed and mute the stereo until all occupants are buckled in. Available safety features include a blind spot warning system with rear cross-traffic alert, and front and rear parking sensors. Click here for a full list of safety features.
The 2016 Ford Escape starts at $24,485, within a few dollars of the Honda CR-V and about $1,000 less than the Toyota RAV4. The Mazda CX-5 starts much lower, at $22,675, though a manual transmission is standard on the base model. With the automatic, the CX-5 starts at $24,075 (all prices include destination).
My midlevel SE all-wheel-drive test model was missing two basic convenience features. It had a conventional keyless entry push-button remote, but no keyless access or push-button start, so I had to dig for the fob in the bottom of my bottomless purse. I could, however, punch in my code to unlock the door via Ford’s door keypad setup. My test vehicle also lacked one-touch power-up windows, though they are available on some trims. Other available upscale convenience features include a foot-swipe-activated power liftgate, an automated parallel parking system and a panoramic sunroof.
The Escape impresses with its well-balanced road manners and excellent multimedia system, but it lacks many of its competitors’ available safety features and stellar crash-test scores. Although I applaud the updated multimedia system for 2016, the 2017 model will bring more available safety features and, hopefully, better crash-test scores. It might be worth the wait.