For this its eighth model year, the 2008 Ford Escape received some welcome upgrades, including new, more aggressive styling and treatments to reduce cabin noise. With its drivetrain and some other features unchanged, however, it falls behind some of its competitors — and not just on paper. Still, it does what’s asked of it with nary a complaint and with decent — but not topnotch — crash-test ratings and average overall reliability. The Escape, which is the third-best-selling compact SUV behind the Honda CR-V and Toyota RAV4, is consistently … passable. I remain fond of it, but age and minimal updating are taking their toll (see a side-by-side comparison with the 2007 model).
Exterior & Styling
The Ford Escape was the most traditionally SUV-looking compact SUV when it first came out, and with its 2008 restyling it takes 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.
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 trims 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
Like most unibody SUVs, the Escape isn’t bouncy like the truck-based, body-on-frame type used to be. However, its ride is firmer than that of recent models like the Ford Edge and Taurus X, whose ride quality is among their best attributes. The Escape is livable, but it’s definitely a road-feeler; if the roads in your life are better left unfelt, pay close attention when test-driving this model.
The Escape is maneuverable and handles reasonably well, though steering feedback is absent from the new electric power-steering system. It feels a bit more top-heavy than many car-based compacts, and body roll adds to the sensation. The rollover rating detailed in the Safety section below supports this notion. An electronic stability system is standard on both front- and all-wheel-drive models, and that lends confidence.
Going & Stopping
The Escape’s age shows in the going and stopping arenas. The drivetrains, unchanged from the previous generation, include a standard 2.3-liter four-cylinder and a 3.0-liter V-6, both driving a four-speed automatic transmission coupled to your choice of front- or all-wheel drive.
|2.3-liter four-cylinder||3.0-liter V6|
|Horsepower (@ rpm)||153 @ 5,800||200 @ 6,000|
|Torque (lbs.-ft. @ rpm)||152 @ 4,250||193 @ 4,850|
I don’t let specs alone influence me, but theFord Escape’s performance reinforces the disadvantages seen when comparing its numbers to those from other models. The market is moving toward five- and six-speed automatic transmissions (or CVTs), and the Escape’s automatic remains a four-speed. Likewise, it 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.
None of this would matter on its own, but the Escape’s acceleration and braking do have weaknesses. Being a Limited with all-wheel drive, my test car was the heaviest possible, and its V6 took a leisurely 10 seconds to get it up to 60 mph. Its braking wasn’t as strong as it should be, either. On the upside, its gas mileage is decent, thanks in part to the electric steering assist, which doesn’t tax the engine the way conventional hydraulic power steering does.
|Compact SUV Gas Mileage|
|EPA-estimated city/highway, mpg|
|Ford Escape||Honda CR-V||Hyundai Tucson||Jeep Patriot||Toyota RAV4|
| 4-cyl. manual
| 4-cyl. manual
| 4-cyl. automatic
| 4-cyl. automatic
| V-6 automatic
| V-6 automatic
| *With CVT and Freedom Drive I 4WD; with Freedom Drive II 4WD: 20/22 mpg
Source: EPA estimates for 2008 models
Though the Ford Escape’s fuel economy is competitive, another gear or two in the automatic transmission would almost certainly make it better, or the acceleration faster, or both.
I haven’t driven the four-cylinder in this generation. When it first came out, replacing a 2.0-liter four-cylinder, the 2.3-liter made the base Escape much more viable — not quick, but competent, especially with the five-speed manual. Its suitability today depends on your acceleration expectations and where and how you intend to use it. A full load or hilly terrain might be enough to disqualify it from consideration.
Along with the standard stability system comes 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. Early models had a monkey knob labeled 4×4 with the settings AUTO and ON. The ON position was meant to lock the system for a 50/50 torque split between the front and rear axles, but Ford demonkified it after determining it did little but confuse higher primates.
Ford has restyled the interior, too. Perhaps most noticeable are the new dark gauges with blue backlighting, which replace the white-faced, Fisher-Price-looking ones I’ve been complaining about since 2000. Also redesigned, the center control panel now has a high-mounted display. The readouts have been 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 were below my test car’s optional navigation screen. 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.
The control panel is more sophisticated. Some folks thought our model’s piano-black finish looked cheap, but I liked it. I’ll take it over poorly executed fake metal any day, and there’s been plenty of that in recent years. Even the CR-V, which otherwise is above average in quality, has some dodgy faux metal. 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 addressed one of the loudest complaints about the model by quieting the cabin. Roof sheet metal changes and a new windshield and ceiling liner address wind noise, while thicker carpeting is claimed to diminish road noise. Overall, Ford says, the Escape is 12 percent quieter at 80 mph. I found the Escape to be quieter overall, but wind noise is still plenty noticeable at higher speeds. (Note: The Escape Hybrid hasn’t received the sound treatment, and the full pu pu platter of noises remains.)
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.
Each trim level has its own upholstery grade: cloth, premium cloth and leather in the XLS, XLT and Limited, respectively. Leather is optional on the XLT. Ford says the standard fabric seats use 100 percent post-industrial plastic waste. While post-industrial doesn’t have as great an impact in the recycling effort as does post-consumer waste, Ford says the new source will conserve, annually, 600,000 gallons of water, the equivalent of 1.8 million pounds of carbon dioxide and more than 7 million kilowatt hours of electricity.
Cargo provisions in the cabin include a modest-sized glove compartment and door pockets. The center storage console was never shy on space, but it now has a couple new facets: A small removable tray can be attached to the back of the console, behind the cupholders that serve the backseat. A Ford photo shows it accommodating a small burger and fries. As one of my photos shows, the main bin also comes out, and it has a handle that lets you hang it alongside the console. I don’t know why you’d drive around with this thing hanging there, but it does give you a place to put it while you retrieve something underneath it in the console.
Unfortunately, the fabric is the only thing that seems to have changed about the seats, because the backseat still 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.
In Insurance Institute for Highway Safety crash tests, the Escape (and its sister models, the Mazda Tribute and Mercury Mariner) is one of only two models in the small SUV class with just an Acceptable front-impact rating. All the others rate Good, a 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 being 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 Ford Escape’s liftgate is a plus. The rear window raises 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 gates on the Toyota RAV4 and Jeep Liberty. 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 base Ford Escape’s towing capacity is 1,500 pounds. V6 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 five SUV models, with another on the way called the Flex. For an idea of where the Ford Escape fits, here are some of the most important specifications:
|Ford SUVs Compared|
|Exterior dimensions (length/width/height, in inches)||Turning circle (feet)||Weight (lbs.)||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
| Edge SE FWD
| Explorer XLT V-6 RWD
(5 or 7 seats)
|Taurus X SEL FWD (6-7 seats)||200.3/74.9/67.4||40.0||3,959||16/24||2,000/2,000||15.8/47.0/85.5||146.2|
|Expedition XLT RWD (5-9 seats)||206.4/78.8/77.3||40.8||5,578||12/18||9,200/9,200||18.6/55.0/108.3||160.0|
|2009 Flex (6-7 seats)||202.3/79.9/67.6*||TBA||TBA||TBA||TBA||TBA||TBA|
| *Preliminary specifications
Source: Manufacturers, EPA
As for the rest of the compact-SUV market, the Ford Escape’s shortcomings are evident. The fact that this year’s changes constituted a significant restyling suggests the model won’t be truly overhauled for years to come. The recently redesigned class leaders are already better overall than the Escape, and other compact SUVs are sure to be upgraded before the Escape is. The problem that Ford — and present and future Ford Escape buyers — faces is that by the time this version is replaced, it will be even further behind even more of the field.
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