Instead of embracing the crossover craze and turning the 2008 Ford Escape into a station wagon on steroids and marketing it as some sort of multipurpose utility vehicle, Ford Motor Co. went another direction: It toughened up the second-generation compact SUV.

It was a good — dare I say bold? — move.

Taking a small SUV and softening it up only makes a softer SUV. There are enough of those already. The new Escape, thankfully, evades that crossover cliche.

This makeover makes sense.

Still a top-selling compact SUV in a crowded market, the Escape may now be more appealing to people downsizing their vehicles but not their expectations. The 2008 Escape rides quieter and feels more comfortable.

And Ford did this, while lowering its price by more than $1,000.

SUV looks bulked up, handles chores easily

In January, I tested an up-level six-cylinder Escape, and it performed everything it was asked.

It carted passengers, hauled groceries, got me to work — easily meeting life’s daily driving demands. It performed like a comfortable friend, ready for any task and confident in execution.

Better yet, it seems the Escape paid a visit to Charles Atlas. So don’t expect any beach bullies to kick sand in its buffed-out face any time soon.

Gone are the girly honeycomb grille and the flabby plastic cladding that covered the sides. Instead, the Escape touts a big new chrome grille and creased hood. The front end looks chunkier and sturdier.

The new Escape looks less like the first-generation model and more like an Explorer.

While Ford kept the Escape the same size, designers used a few tricks to make it look bigger. They raised the beltline and created a thin plastic rocker at the bottom of the doors. The optical illusion makes it look taller.

The Escape may have bulked up, but Ford did not upgrade the Escape’s powertrains.

However, the optional 3-liter V-6 offers more than enough power to accelerate onto a highway or pass some slow poke on a country road. It creates 200-horsepower — though that power only comes if you floor it to hit 6,000 rpm.

The standard 2.3-liter I-4 has 153 horses under its hood and gets better gas mileage.

People moving from bigger SUVs may miss the V-8 power but they’re trading it for efficiency.

Dropping a bigger engine may speed you along the highway faster, but it would also drop the Escape’s impressive EPA numbers. The I-4 hits 20 miles per gallon in the city and 26 mpg on the highway. The V-6 maintains 18 mpg in the city and 24 mpg on the highway. Remember, these are the new 2008 EPA standards, meant to reflect real-world driving.

A more powerful engine could have helped the SUV’s off-road abilities, but few Escape owners drive on anything tougher than Interstate 75 during rush hour.

A good thing, too. Ford’s intelligent four-wheel drive system does not work like an off-road 4-by-4. It’s basically an all-wheel-drive system that relies on the front wheels for most of the work. When one wheel slips, power is pushed back to the rear wheels.

The view gets better inside

But the real story of the new Escape is not under the hood, it’s in the cabin.

While providing a car-like ride, an Escape driver sits higher than in a car. This is one of the reasons people buy SUVs — that and the additional storage space, which the Escape also offers.

A top-dash mounted display is the first new gadget I noticed, in part, because it’s at eye level. It displays the temperature (inside and out) as well as the radio functions and time.

Not one to read an owner’s manual, it took me a few minutes to figure out how to adjust the heat. While the controls are at the bottom of the console, any changes in temperature are displayed at the top. Once I realized that, the system was easy to use and I kept my eyes on the road while I made any adjustments.

The entire center stack looks much cleaner than in previous Escape models. The piano black trim — which is car-speak for shiny black plastic — keeps the dash tidy and balances the design throughout the interior. My test vehicle came with a hexagon-shaped pattern on the dash, which gave it a more industrial feel — a welcome change to the faux leather grain stamped on many dashes.

The instrument panel also changed, with the white-faced speedometer and tachometer now lit with soft blue lighting, making them a cinch to read.

At night, the Escape is extremely easy on the eyes.

There are scads of little improvements. An MP3 jack allows the stereo to connect with an iPod or other musical device.

The three-tiered center console, which is large enough for a laptop computer, includes two removable bins that can be mounted elsewhere.

The fit and finish throughout the vehicle is top notch and all of the interior changes suggest a well-thought out and designed vehicle.

The mix of tough exterior and elegant interior works well on the new Escape. It doesn’t try too hard to be something it’s not and it skips the pretentiousness of a luxury compact SUV.

In a market filled with feel-good machines, the new Escape reverts back a decade ago to when SUVs ruled the roads. It’s nice to see a tough-looking vehicle that doesn’t sacrifice the driver’s comfort.

Sometimes, the best qualities of new vehicles come forward when a company embraces its past.