Ford Motor acts like a smart kid seeking popularity by acting dumb. It has all of the stuff necessary to be at the head of the class, certainly enough to be among those students on the dean's list or honor roll.

But it continually succumbs to the nonsense of "keeping it real," being like everybody else, worse than the best.

The same silliness is manifested in politics, in the national hunger for a man or woman of the people. We want our leaders to be as ordinary as we are. That is why we often are led astray.

At Ford, this goofiness is manifested in the 2009 Ford Escape compact sport-utility vehicle, the original version of which was introduced a decade ago.

At birth, the Escape was something of a prodigy. It was small enough to make sense in the city, rugged enough to survive in the outback, fuel-efficient enough to get through an economic downturn.

It can be argued that the Escape was so good that it set an example for the competition, especially in the category of fuel efficiency for small SUVs. But like the smart kid afraid of losing dumb friends, the Escape, with the blessing of its Ford parents, slowed its pace toward excellence, allowing competitors to catch and pass it in the marketplace.

Let us, for example, consider the matter of brakes.

Disc brakes are more effective than drum brakes. Four-wheel disc brakes are better at reducing stopping distance than an arrangement of disc brakes up front and drum brakes in the rear.

The rival Honda CR-V, Toyota Rav4 and Hyundai Santa Fe -- Hyundai! -- all come with ventilated discs up front and solid disc brakes in the rear. They all stop smartly when those brakes are applied. What about the Escape?

Smart kids who value popularity over intellect or academic achievement frequently do dumb things to sabotage their progress. Thus was the case with the Ford Escape.

The Escape once came to us with disc brakes front and rear. That was a good arrangement, a smart setup. But the Escape was losing the popularity contest in styling. So, the people at Ford decided to spiff it up for model year 2008, giving it a complete makeover inside and out, an effort highlighted by an attractive chrome grille that simultaneously bespeaks elegance and ruggedness.

Interior materials were improved along with fit and finish and general ergonomics. Horsepower was ramped up in the standard inline four-cylinder Escape, as well as in the six-cylinder model driven for this column. Also, like a teenager with the latest telecommunications and infotainment gizmos, the Escape got all of those -- in the form of the onboard Microsoft/Ford Sync communications system.

Apparently, the people at Ford thought that looking good, flexing more muscle and getting hip with electronics were good enough -- because they proceeded to do something unspeakably dumb. They replaced the Escape's rear disc brakes, which worked wonderfully well, with substantially less effective rear drum brakes.

The new Escape, as a result, is something of a dullard when it comes to stopping. Its driver has to concentrate on keeping a safe stopping distance between it and the vehicle ahead. That's something that drivers should do anyway. But in the new Escape, maintaining a safe stopping distance is mandatory.

I'm totally flummoxed here. I feel like a parent looking at the academic report of a one-time "A" student who has brought home "Cs" and "Ds." I need to speak to a counselor. I just don't get it.

Why would Ford do something as dumb as ditch highly effective four-wheel-disc brakes for a front disc-rear drum setup? Was it to cut costs? Has mediocrity become "Job One" at Ford? What's going on here? The answer escapes me.

ON WHEELS WITH WARREN BROWN Listen from noon to 1 p.m. Tuesdays on WMET World Radio (1160 AM) or