Even in its aged state, the 2011 Ford Escape still hits a sweet spot in terms of ride comfort, but its drab interior and clumsy handling leave it behind the increasingly flashy competition.
Car shoppers expressed their love for small crossovers more than a decade ago, and the auto industry responded. Today's vehicle market offers a wide range of choices, from glorified hatchbacks to those just big enough to shoehorn in an impossibly small third row. Somewhere in the scrum is the Escape, a popular two-row model in its twilight years. Driving a midlevel Escape XLT back-to-back with eight competitors, one thing became apparent: The next Escape can't come soon enough.
The XLT sits between the entry-level XLS and range-topping Ford Escape Limited, all three of which can be had with either front- or all-wheel drive. Our test car had Ford's 2.5-liter four-cylinder; a V-6 is optional on the XLT and Limited. Click here to see Escape trims compared, and here to see the 2011 and 2010 Escape compared. The Ford Escape Hybrid and its gas-electric drivetrain are covered separately on Cars.com.
Comfortable Ride, Crummy Reflexes
In small crossover SUV vehicles, ride comfort is all over the board. There's the tolerable Chevy Equinox, the choppy Kia Sportage, and — with a ride refined over the years — the comfortable Escape. Ford's entry is one of the few in this category that earns that label, and not just in a relative sense. The suspension handles larger bumps well enough, but it really shines over long stretches of highway. Pavement imperfections that filter up to the cabin in other crossovers simply don't in here. The Escape feels floaty at times — one editor bemoaned its ride for just that reason — but in terms of sheer comfort, Ford gets top marks.
Simple cruising aside, the Ford Escape's slow reflexes foil any chance of car-like maneuverability — a shame, given its steering is decent. The wheel has gobs of power assist at low speeds, making parking lots a cinch, and at higher speeds it takes on winding roads with lively precision. If only the rest of the Escape followed suit. It feels as top-heavy as the Space Needle — listing hard into corners, squatting back or pitching forward when you speed up or slow down. The brake pedal feels mushy and tentative, and the Escape's standard antilock brakes kick in quite early. Where other crossovers stop hard on all fours, the Escape's tail gets squirrely in the same exercise. Whether it's the low-tech rear drum brakes or the lean-happy suspension that's to blame, the results aren't inspiring.
The Ford Escape's 2.5-liter four-cylinder gets you going briskly, albeit with a loud drone. A six-speed automatic is standard on all but the front-drive XLS, and it prefers to choose a gear and stay there. Although the transmission rarely hunts for gears, its stubbornness becomes a fault when you drone up an on-ramp in 4th or 5th with the pedal halfway to the floor. The four-cylinder engine has enough torque to make it, but more responsive transmission kickdown would help.
A 3.0-liter V-6 is optional, and its 240 horsepower considerably outpaces the four-cylinder's 171 hp. We've driven the V-6 in years past, and it's appreciably punchier, though still a bit raspy. It pairs with the standard six-speed automatic, and the combination makes the V-6 Escape a capable mover — not as quick as the V-6 Toyota RAV4, but sprightlier than the underwhelming V-6 Equinox. Like those two, the Ford also tows up to 3,500 pounds when properly equipped.
Combined EPA gas mileage for a front-drive, automatic four-cylinder is 23 mpg. All-wheel drive drops the rating to 22 mpg. Neither figure is particularly impressive, but the V-6 Escape's combined rating — 20 or 21 mpg, depending on driveline — rates more evenly with the V-6 competition.
Redesigned three model years ago, the Escape's interior feels rugged but low-rent. Our test car's optional piano-black trim and high-quality headliner were high points, but both are diminished by the surrounding sea of flimsy buttons and grainy dashboard plastics. What's more, the Escape remains one of the only crossovers in this class to forgo a telescoping steering wheel.
The half-baked features go on. Get an XLT or Limited, and the "power" driver's seat has a manual reclining adjustment. The optional heated front seats have only one heat level, and to lower the backseat you'll first have to yank out all three head restraints, flip the bottom cushions forward and stow the headrests. Your doctor might qualify this as exercise.
The front seats have decent headroom, and thanks to the Escape's upright windows and high roofline, sight lines are quite good. Unfortunately, legroom in the rear ranks near the bottom of the class. Adults will find it modest, and it would be downright tight if it weren't for that non-telescoping steering wheel, which generally makes drivers sit farther forward than they otherwise might.
Cargo room behind the rear passenger seats measures 31.4 cubic feet. However burdensome the seats are to fold, when you're done you'll have a flat cargo area with 67.2 cubic feet of volume. Given the Escape's relatively small exterior size, those figures aren't too shabby. In comparison, the Sportage and its Hyundai Tucson twin are about the same length but have well under 60 cubic feet of maximum volume.
Safety, Features & Pricing
In Insurance Institute for Highway Safety crash tests, the Escape earned the top rating, Good, in front, side and rear impacts. In the roof-strength test, however, the Escape achieved only a Marginal rating. The Escape has not yet been tested by the National Highway Traffic Safety Administration using its revamped 2011 standards. Standard safety features include six airbags, antilock brakes and an electronic stability system. Click here to see our evaluation of child-safety seats in the Escape, or here to see a full list of its safety features.
Reliability for the current generation has been so-so, with all-wheel-drive models in particular faring below average. That's disappointing in a segment that includes reliability all-stars like the Honda CR-V, the RAV4 and the non-turbo Subaru Forester.
Pricing starts at $21,215 for a front-drive Escape XLS. That's rather high for a small crossover, seeing as most buyers will want to fork over another $1,230 for the overpriced automatic. That transmission is standard on other trims and required for all-wheel drive. Standard features on the XLS include power windows and locks, remote entry, air conditioning, cruise control and alloy wheels. Check the options or move up trims, and you can get steering-wheel audio controls, heated leather seats, dual-zone climate control, Ford's USB/iPod-compatible Sync system, a moonroof, rear DVD entertainment and a navigation system. On any trim, all-wheel drive adds $1,750. On the XLT and Limited, the optional V-6 adds $1,195.
The Escape does pack some impressive technology features. Ford's self-parking option, which we checked out two years ago, is available on the Limited. The automaker's MyKey system, which allows parents to impose speed and stereo-volume limits for their teenage drivers, is standard.
With its panoply of options, the Escape can get pricey. Load up an all-wheel-drive V-6 Limited, and the price can top $36,000.
Escape in the Market
The Escape still boasts strong sales, but in recent years it's grown more expensive and less reliable — troublesome developments in a body-type segment where value and dependability really count. Ride comfort remains the Escape's main draw, but Ford needs to match that with a higher-quality interior and better handling. Here's hoping the next Escape — portended by Ford's well-received Vertrek concept — gets the job done.
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