Just what the world needed, another sport-utility vehicle.

What are there now, perhaps a hundred dozen SUVs of assorted ancestry roaming the highways?

Actually, what the world needed wasn't so much another SUV as it was a smaller, more affordable SUV with above-average fuel economy that still offered all the goodies of the larger, more costly, more thirsty sport-utes--room for the family and the gear plus four-wheel-drive for secure motoring in the Snow Belt and an occasional jaunt off-road.

The 2001 Ford Escape is just that: a more sensibly sized, sensibly priced and sensibly fuel-efficient vehicle.

Escape arrives this fall to give consumers who can't squeeze into a mini Chevrolet Tracker but who would get lost in a maxi Ford Excursion the advantages of an SUV.

Escape will come in a variety of flavors: base XLS or top-of-the-line XLT, front-wheel-drive or four-wheel-drive, 4-cylinder or V-6 power.

Though the vehicle is months from showrooms, Ford recently let the media have at the Escape. Why so early? Probably so that our reviews might discourage those interested in a RAV4, Honda CR-V, Chevrolet Blazer or Jeep Cherokee from shopping now.

We tested the XLT with four-wheel-drive and V-6.

Escape, is roughly the same size as a Ford Focus sedan. It's built on a 103-inch wheelbase and is 176 inches long and 70.1 inches wide. That compares with a 94.9-inch wheelbase, 163.8-inch length and 66.7-inch width on the RAV4 and a 111.6-inch wheelbase, 190.7-inch length, and 70.2-inch width on the Ford Explorer.

The dimension worth noting is width, nearly the same as the longer Explorer. Thanks to the width, Escape has a very roomy cabin front and rear, and though it looks small on the outside, it feels much larger on the inside.

Ford chose a rugged truck-like design rather than the more sedate station wagon look on the CR-V. Escape has a big, bold composite front bumper, wheelwell extensions and lower body-side cladding and the honeycomb grille pattern lifted from the full-size F-150 pickup.

The same 2-liter, 130-horsepower 4-cylinder in Focus is standard in Escape and boasts a 26 m.p.g. city/28 m.p.g. highway rating. It comes only with a 5-speed manual. The 3-liter, 200-h.p., 24-valve, Duratec V-6, same as in the Ford Taurus, is the choice for those who prefer lively re sponse to pedal pressure. It is offered only with 4-speed automatic. If the V-6 has a drawback, and it does, it's that it tends to growl when you kick the pedal rather than provide the usual smooth, quiet takeoff.

While Escape may look a little trucklike, ride and handling lean toward that of a sedan. Four-wheel independent suspension helps. When you opt for 4WD, larger p235/70R 16-inch all-season tires replace p225/70R 15-inch all-season radials. Despite the larger tires, the center of gravity hasn't been raised to the point you feel wobbly in corners or turns. Considering the large size of the wheelwell openings, the 16-inch treads also look better.

For some reason, the spare under the rear cargo floor is a 17- inch monster, regardless of which tires you get. It sits in a well so big it resembles a wading pool. Hmm. Wouldn't a smaller space-saver spare have allowed Ford room for the spare and a mini-compartment in the floor to hold loose stuff or junk? Just asking.

Escape's 4WD system is called Control Trac II. A dial on the instrument panel provides two settings: "auto," in which Escape operates in FWD mode until wheel slippage is detected and then it engages all four wheels automatically; or "on," which you turn to engage all four wheels when you know you'll need them, such as off-road or extended travel through snow. Like the CR-V and RAV-4, off-roading doesn't mean fording streams or climbing mountains, however.

While the 4WD dial is conveniently located along the instrument panel so it can be seen and used easily, the designers seemed to treat a few other controls as afterthoughts. The column-mounted automatic gearshift lever and the steering column itself tend to block access to the rear-window defroster, power mirror and hazard-light controls.

Our test vehicle came with bucket seats upfront (with side air bags in each) and a 60/40 split bench in back in which the seat bottoms flip and seat backs fold for an even larger and flat cargo hold to store the gear. For some reason, however, the cloth loop you pull to get the seat cushion to flip seemed to resent being tugged and needed prodding.

The rear seat affords ample head, leg and arm room for two adults and, at most, one small child. If the trip is long, the rear seat backs recline so you can snooze or lay back and look up at the sky through the optional ($595) moon roof.

The cargo hold will carry gear, groceries or golf clubs--more than one set. There's also an accessory power plug and a mini compartment in the wall for small items. You can open the rear hatch as one piece or the glass by itself.

The front, side and rear windows are large to provide excellent visibility, but the outside mirrors are too small and hinder side vision. Bigger mirrors would be more in keeping with the image of an SUV and allow better sight lines when pulling into/out of the passing lane.

XLT base price is $19,195 in FWD version, $20,820 with 4WD. The XLS starts at $17,645 in FWD, $19,270 with 4WD.

Four-wheel anti-lock brakes are standard on the XLT, a $575 option on the XLS.

Options can quickly raise the price, but there are some you can do without, such as the $870 leather comfort group and its leather seats/leather-wrapped steering wheel. Leather in a low-cost SUV doesn't make sense. And forget the $325 convenience group with speed control, floor mats and a retractable cargo cover. The $275 side step bars are designed for easier entry/exit, but step in/out height is low enough to do without them. Besides, though the step bars look good, they catch snow and ice in the winter and mud and dirt in the summer and can transfer all to your pant legs when slipping over them.

Skipping those options will leave you only $10 shy of the $1,480 needed for the optional V-6 with 4-speed automatic with overdrive. The savings in not having to dry clean your pants will more than offset that $10. But consider the $565 power moonroof and $345 side-impact air bags.

Standard equipment includes power locks with keyless entry; power mirrors; roof rack; air conditioning; front/rear cupholders; center console storage bin with coin holder; AM/FM radio with clock; cassette and single CD player; rear-floor heat ducts; power windows with driver's side express down; cargo floor hooks; four-wheel independent suspension; and intermittent wipers.

Towing capacity is 3,500 pounds when you opt for the V-6 and a special towing package. Ford says Escape will pull water scooters, snowmobiles or a small boat.

Looking ahead, Escape's bigger brother, the Explorer, offers a derivative called the Explorer Sport Trac with a small pickup bed behind the passenger cabin. A similar derivative of the Escape would be very desirable.

Escape was developed with Ford's partner Mazda of Japan, which gets a version called Tribute that shares engine s and transm issions but has different sheet metal except for the roof. Tribute comes out this fall too. Escape is equipped and tuned for the young, sporty crowd, Tribute for slightly older folks as an alternative to a station wagon or mini-van.

While Ford says Escape is aimed at RAV4 and CR-V, we would expect General Motors to try to lure Escape intenders into the new Pontiac Aztek (Cartalk, June 4), a larger (108-inch wheelbase/182-inch long) SUV that offers FWD or 4WD (after the first of next year) for less than $25,000, but with a few more attractions for youth, such as a center console that doubles as a portable cooler and removable backpacks in the doors.