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Car reviews - Ford - Escape - 5-dr wagon range

Our Opinion

We like
Tough new exterior look, upmarket new interior, refinement, extra driveability, crisp on-road handling, sharp entry price
Room for improvement
No reach-adjustable steering, no five-speed auto, no manual-shift mode, no stability control or curtain airbag availability

9 Jun 2006

DESPITE sharing everything except (most) exterior body panels with Tribute, Escape has never really emulated the sales success of its mechanical twin from Mazda, the rejuvenated Ford-controlled Japanese brand.

However, an expensive advertising campaign to promote the limited-edition four-cylinder "Bad Boy" Escape in 2004 proved that, given correctly targeted marketing and subtle model tweaks, Escape had the ingredients to be as popular as its Mazda-badged sister SUV.

But the march of time has taken its toll on both models in the image-led compact SUV arena, which now comprises now fewer than 17 models, including an all-new RAV4 and keenly-priced Korean-built offerings from the likes of SsangYong, Hyundai and Kia.

So while the five-year-old Escape’s midlife facelift (Ford goes as far as calling it an all-new model) is more like old-age spruce up, it’s surprising just how much difference the redesigned interior, revised engines, new-look exterior styling and extra features actually make.

The revised front sheetmetal, headlights and grille give Escape a far more aggressive appearance and, though there are similarities with Toyota’s Kluger, there’s now also an undeniable visual link with Territory, which stamps the refreshed Escaped firmly as a member of the Ford SUV family.

Given Territory’s popularity, that can only be a good thing for its smaller sibling. And the Limited chrome side badge and mirror-mounted indicators are a classy touch.

But the real action is inside, where a totally redesigned dashboard provides the most striking impression and brings Escape straight into the 21st century.

The sexy new high-tech centre stack puts tactile, intuitive controls for the audio and climate systems within easy reach of both front occupants and is ergonomically designed with large rotary dials, the often-used radio controls at the top and large air-vents almost at face level.

A metallic-look surround (classy woodgrain on the Limited) compliments the stylish new instrument cluster, whose blue backlighting would be at home in many more expensive models. The large LCD screens are easily read at a glance and give the Escape interior a mix of both premium Japanese and European style, but have the potential to reflect a lot of sunlight.

Revised door trims with a much softer armrest combine with far more generous seat padding to make Escape a far more comfortable place to be too, without sacrificing lateral support. However, there’s still no reach adjustment for the steering wheel.

Similarly, the abandonment of Escape’s column-mounted gearshifter will please most people. I for one was a fan of the outgoing Escape’s four-on-the-tree shifter, which was in close proximity to the steering wheel and made de/selecting overdrive (via a button on the end of the stalk) possible without taking hands off the wheel.

So while the new floor-mounted shifter certainly makes Escape’s interior appear less old-fashioned (Ford research showed it was major reason for buyers choosing its rivals), the advantages are more perceived than real. Especially when the transmission remains a four-speed unit (CR-V was the first compact SUV to offer a five-speed auto in 2005) and there’s no manual-shift mode, which is now commonplace in compact cars.

A final interior gripe relates to the chime that sounds when the door is opened when the key is in the ignition, which is infuriating and unnecessary.

On the road, both four-cylinder and V6 versions are noticeably more flexible in the midrange. The fitment of a drive-by-wire throttle make the 2.3 much smoother off the line, eliminating much of the previous cable-throttle’s abruptness, while variable (intake only) valve timing also makes the four-pot more tractable off the line and during overtaking manoeuvres from middling revs.

Similarly, changes to the transmission give V6 versions better economy and extra driveability, especially in the midrange, and the beefier brakes – never an Escape strongpoint – are a good match for the more rewarding power delivery.

Escape has always been a firmly sprung device that commendably resists the problem that afflicts many SUVs: bodyroll. While the downside was a less than plush ride and a tendency toward bump-steer while cornering over rough terrain, it’s curious that both steering finesse and ride quality appear to have improved – despite any suspension changes that Ford has admitted to.

There’s still some resonance through the seats on coarse-chip road surfaces, but given Escape’s relatively sporting tarmac credentials – and the vast gains made in cabin quietness and engine smoothness – that’s a minor negative we’d be prepared to live with.

Escape’s safety advances are also noteworthy. The fitment of front seatbelt pretensioners and a centre rear lap/sash belt and head restraint is long overdue, but Toyota’s new RAV is available with stability control and side curtain airbags.

It may have been a long time coming but, finally, Escape now looks the part both inside and out, is competitive in terms of refinement and performance, and carries a razor-sharp entry price.

Whether that will be enough for it to stand out from the compact SUV throng, only the customer can decide.

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