For a while it looked as though SUVs would grow to school-bus size entries to hold not just the family but the neighborhood.
Explorer, Expedition, Excursion. Big, bigger and biggest — and those are only Ford’s entries.
And then came Escape, a compact sport-utility vehicle that, as the name implies, offers an escape from the huge size and low mileage while still at home off-road.
Escape bowed in the 2001 model year followed by a Mercury version called Mariner for 2005. Thanks to high gas prices making villains of big SUVs, Escape sales are up 7 percent this year, Mariner 5 percent.
For 2008 both sport a new look: Escape more rugged with a big, bold chrome grille announcing its big brother is Explorer; Mariner a softer look with a satin-finish waterfall grille that shows kinship to the midsize Milan sedan. Inside, satin pewter trim and chrome accents make Mariner look more fashionable than Escape.
We tested the top-of-the-line 2008 Escape Limited and Mariner Premier with four-wheel-drive for the Snow Belt.
They share the same dimensions, engines, suspensions, stability and traction control — even the same storage for laptop or purse under the center armrest and under the cargo floor for wet swimsuits and towels.
Yet the distinctive dress also creates the impression of a different demeanor: Escape the rugged off-roader, Mariner the mannered road cruiser.
Both are powered by a 3-liter, 200-horsepower V-6 with a 4-speed automatic rated at 17 m.p.g. city/22 m.p.g. highway with 4WD (18/24 two-wheel-drive). Yet Mariner seems quieter and quicker than Escape in stepping into traffic, while Escape’s exhaust growls.
Both have the same suspension tuned for smoothness over flat pavement and stumble free travel through snow. New electronic speed-sensitive power steering delivers quicker, more predictable car-like response to wheel input.
Both stand tall for better down-the-road visibility as well as off-road clearance. But there’s no top-heavy lean in sharp corners. Yet Mariner seems a little more nimble there than Escape.
Seats in both are skimpy in size and support and too firm for long rides. When finished in leather, Mariner’s suede inserts on seat bottoms and backs are cooler in the summer, warmer in the winter and more chic at all times.
Cloth seats in base models are made from recycled plastic pop bottles and polyester fabric. Sitting on old pop bottles and leisure suits is more politically correct than sitting on old or new cowhide, but being swaddled in suede feels better.
Escape and Mariner hold up to five. Headroom is massive front and rear; legroom is tolerable, knee room tight in back.
Cargo space is more generous than in some midsize crossovers and gets even better after you flip and fold second-row seat bottoms and fold seat backs flat. But remember to remove the headrests.
Stiff, undersized seats aren’t the only drawbacks. Roofs were redesigned to reduce wind noise, but the din in Escape is still excessive at speed. And the release lever for the emergency brake is so low and far under the dash it’s a ZIP Code out of reach.
But the switch to ice-blue lighting on the instrument cluster, center console, door lock and window controls is far easier on the eyes at night than the previous green. And the new top-of-the-dash display of time, date and inside/outside temperature makes it a one-spot stop for information.
Escape and Mariner also offer gas/electric power that accounts for about 2,000 and 1,000 sales a month, respectively. Both carry about a $4,000 premium, but deliver better mileage, 29 m.p.g. city/27 m.p.g. highway with 4WD, 34/30 with 2WD. Too high a price to recover in gas, but a conservation statement nonetheless.
We tested the Escape hybrid with its 2.3-liter, 153-h.p. 4-cylinder and nickel-metal-hydride battery pack. It starts in gas mode to heat the catalytic converter to treat emissions and then switches to battery for takeoff. It can go up to 25 m.p.h. before the gas comes back on. A battery boost kicks in when passing or climbing. The gas engine shuts off rather than idling at lights.
We were able to coax it up to about 22 m.p.h. on batteries only for several blocks. When trying to go faster or on even a modest incline, the gas engine took over.
A schematic in the navigation screen shows when in battery, gas or both modes and when the batteries are recharging while driving. No need to stop, plug in and wait. The lighter the foot, the longer the battery icon glows alone. The heavier the foot, the quicker and longer the gas engine icon lights up. That encourages conservation.
An instant mileage readout shows single digits if you stand on the gas pedal to accelerate, double digits 30 to 50 m.p.g. when you tiptoe in battery mode and the 60 m.p.g. max when you coast.
The Escape Limited 4WD starts at $25,330, the Mariner Premier 4WD with more standard goodies such as dual-zone climate control starts at $25,380, and the gas/electric Escape 2WD starts at $25,075, plus $1,195 for the hybrid package, or about $4,200 more than an XLT on which the hybrid is based.
The gas Escape/Mariner offer stability and traction control; the hybrids get it for 2009, the same model year the Ford Fusion and Mercury Milan sedans add hybrids.
2008 FORD ESCAPE LIMITED 4WD
2008 MERCURY MARINER PREMIER 4WD
Price as tested. Add $635 for freight.
$25,330 Base (2008 FORD ESCAPE LIMITED 4WD)
$25,380 Base (2008 MERCURY MARINER PREMIER 4WD)
$2,395 Navigation system
$295 Heated seats and mirrors
$295 Retractable cargo cover
$195 Satellite radio
17 City/22 Highway
WHEELBASE: 103.1 inches
LENGTH: 174.7 inches
ENGINE: 3-liter, 200-h.p. V-6
TRANSMISSION: 4-speed automatic
– Smaller, easier to park, higher-mileage versions of larger SUVs.
– Even higher-mileage hybrids offered.
– 4WD security.
– Seats small and stiff.
– Emergency brake release out of sight.
– No escape from wind noise in Escape.
– Premium price on hybrid, but no stability control until 2009.
Read Jim Mateja Sunday in Transportation. Contact him firstname.lastname@example.org.