Car reviews - Ford - Escape - Ambiente FWD
Excellent engine, copious standard equipment, much improved interior, slick dynamics, absorbent ride quality
Room for improvement
Sat-nav irritating when not using Apple/Android smartphone system, poor front seat adjustment, Ambiente denied safety pack option
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19 Apr 2017
Price and equipment
STEEL wheels with hubcaps and a manual gear selector were the only real clues as to the fact we were driving a base-model Escape.
Even the plain plastic grille was not obvious as our test vehicle was finished in Shadow Black duco – a $550 premium paint option (of the eight hues available, Frozen White is the only no-cost paintjob).
Included in the $28,490 (plus on-road costs) asking price is dual-zone climate control with rear air vents and an 8.0-inch touchscreen with Ford’s sophisticated Sync3 voice-controlled multimedia system providing access to satellite navigation, Apple CarPlay/Android Auto smartphone connectivity, the reversing camera, DAB+ digital radio, Bluetooth with audio streaming and CD player.
Audio is piped through six speakers and Sync3 can alert the emergency services automatically if an airbag is deployed, using a phone that has been paired via Bluetooth.
There is also remote central locking with push-button start, a leather-wrapped multi-function steering wheel, cruise control, rear parking sensors, an electric park brake, electric windows all round, multi-function trip computer, foglights at both ends and floor mats. The aforementioned steel wheels are 17-inch items, with a couple of similar-sized alloy options available as dealer-fit accessories from around $1500.
A six-speed automatic transmission costs an extra $1500, to which all-wheel-drive can be added for $2000, bringing the total to $32,990 plus on-road costs.
For the same amount, Ford offers the front-drive automatic Trend spec level that has the same 1.5-litre turbo-petrol engine as the Ambiente and adds mostly tinsel including 18-inch alloy wheels, a chrome grille and a leather-trimmed gear selector plus automatic headlights and wipers and a self-dimming interior mirror.
What the Trend does is open up the possibility of option packs including keyless entry and hands-free powered tailgate for $1200 or more compellingly, the $1300 suite of driver and safety aids including adaptive cruise control, lane departure warning with lane-keeping assistance, blind spot monitoring with rear cross-traffic alert, autonomous emergency braking, driver fatigue and distraction warning, tyre pressure monitoring, auto high beam and auto-fold door mirrors with puddle lamps.
The Trend also has a choice of 2.0-litre turbo-petrol or turbo-diesel engines with the all-wheel-drive option ticked. Both these engines are also available on the top-spec, AWD-only Titanium that starts to get a bit pricey from $44,990 plus on-roads for the petrol and tops out at $47,490 for the diesel.
Even at these prices, the leather-trimmed, panoramic glass-roofed Titanium requires a $1300 extras pack to get the full set of driver and safety aids applied to an optioned-up Trend. Gouging, considering how much spec is provided at base Ambiente level.
We were more than happy with the spec offered on our Ambiente test vehicle, while those with an eye on value but demanding the full safety suite are best off with a front-drive Trend and the technology option box ticked. That would be a lot of car for $34,290 plus on-roads.
But we would like to see the tech pack available to those who can’t stretch their budget beyond an Ambiente.
Compared with the fussy, button-heavy cabin of the Kuga it replaces, the Escape’s dashboard inherits the simpler, cleaner look of the latest Focus small car with which it shares much of its underpinnings and drivetrain.
The effect is even more refreshing than when a similar change was applied to the Focus due to the Escape being an SUV with a higher ceiling and greater general feeling of space.
Its big 8.0-inch touchscreen with simple panel of shortcut keys and a volume knob, plus the more pleasant and clearer dual-zone climate control adjustment panel, put regularly used functions within easy reach and are less distracting to the driver than navigating the tiny, fiddly switchgear that went before.
Being a Sync3 system, the voice commands are pretty spot on and most functions were easy to use but Ford’s satellite navigation remains frustrating, especially for the number of times an address entry needs confirming before it actually starts navigating. We used the Apple CarPlay system instead as it worked better, even if using the navigation function can eat into mobile data.
A big upgrade is the new steering wheel, which looks so much more at home with the rest of the interior than previously, feels great in the hands and has more logically laid out buttons for phone, audio and cruise control as well.
Kuga drivers stepping into an Escape will sense that this car has been significantly upgraded and probably feel relief that the button-fest has gone, while those cross shopping with Ford’s competitors will appreciate the immediate user-friendliness and hi-tech feel of this feature-packed cabin. It is hard to believe how much there is in here for the price, not to mention the sense of quality and general ambience.
As before, there are heaps and heaps of dashboard vents with chunky adjusters and the dual-zone climate control kept us comfortable as Melbourne enjoyed an unseasonably warm start to autumn.
The charcoal seat fabric looks and feels to be of higher grade than the Ambiente’s price point would suggest, as does the overall level of equipment as mentioned earlier. But we found the backrest adjustment was either too laid-back or too upright and shorter drivers struggled with the long squabs that provided the long of leg with good levels of thigh support.
Fitting a child seat using the prominent Isofix anchorages was a cinch, provided the reclining rear backrest was at the correct angle, but the top tethers right at the base of the seat-backs were obscured by a weird piece of trim that seemed to have worked loose and exposed sharp fixings that scratched our hands as we fumbled to attach the securing strap.
Also problematic was the sheer lack of space for a front passenger with a rear-facing infant seat behind them. New name or not, the Ford also remains one of, if not the most cramped mid-sized SUV for rear passengers in terms of legroom and space for three abreast.
Headroom is generous back there though and interior storage is a plus point, with plenty of large bins and cubbies to stash things.
Consistent with the Escape’s exterior dimensions putting it at the more compact end of its segment, boot space is smaller than that of most competitors at 406 litres with the seats up (not much more than a Mitsubishi ASX from the next size down) but expanding to a respectable 1603L with them folded flat using the simple and smooth mechanism.
Like the rear bench, there is not all that much width, but the cargo area is well-shaped, uniform and with a premium-feel carpet lining compared with most competitors plus a usefully low load lip and a floor that is almost flush with the bottom of the tailgate opening.
On the move, we found the Escape to be well insulated and refined, with the uniquely Ford quality that all control weights and touch points have seemingly been synchronised to have a consistently smooth and satisfying feel. Visibility is also excellent.
Shame then, that Ford has not rectified the rattles that plagued the Kuga and undermine an otherwise solid-feeling cabin of well-chosen plastics, fabrics and textures.
Engine and transmission
For similar money to the Escape Ambiente that comes with a punchy 1.5-litre turbo-petrol engine, the number of mid-sized SUVs that can offer equivalent engine performance is zero. People might lose sight of what is under the bonnet amid the promise of certain interior features or exterior styling but the humble drivetrain can really make or break a car once real life kicks in.
For example, the otherwise excellent Hyundai Tucson Active is similarly priced to the Escape Ambiente but is hamstrung by an underpowered 2.0-litre naturally aspirated petrol engine that needs revving almost comically hard to negotiate hills, feels pretty gutless when overtaking and struggles to keep up with traffic when fully loaded.
The same applies to entry variants of the Honda CR-V, Kia Sportage, Mazda CX-5, Mitsubishi Outlander, Nissan X-Trail, Subaru Forester and Toyota RAV4. In other words, all direct competitors.
Only the more expensive Volkswagen Tiguan can joust with the Escape on engine performance because it also has a turbo, but its standard equipment list looks positively anaemic compared with the Ford.
The Escape’s engine puts out 110kW of power at 5700rpm (boosted to 134kW when paired with the automatic transmission) and 240Nm of torque from 1600-5000rpm.
The aforementioned Hyundai produces its 121kW power peak at 6200rpm and requires 4000rpm to reach its maximum torque of just 203Nm.
On paper the peak power and torque figures may not seem all that different but the way they are delivered – the RPM figure – is like chalk and cheese.
The Hyundai takes off smartly from standstill while the Ford has a softer initial acceleration, but where the Tucson exhibits the rev-requiring traits mentioned above, the Escape has a much more relaxed nature. It needs fewer revs and fewer gear changes to achieve the same result as the Tucson with its accelerator planted and the engine screaming blue murder.
At this point we should point out that we are not picking on the Tucson, and that the similar-sized non-turbo petrol engines from all brands share these characteristics, with transmission type and calibration being the biggest differentiator.
On that note, the Escape’s six-speed manual is pleasant to use, with the same slick feel and well-judged weight as all other controls. The clutch action is light but positive, easy to get used to and never caused us any grief as we crawled through peak hour Melbourne traffic.
In performance and driveability terms, we could only really grumble about the tall second gear ratio, which forced us to stay in first longer than would usually feel natural, or shift back to first in low-speed traffic earlier than was intuitive. Failure to comply would result in an unresponsive engine until turbo lag was overcome. Most buyers would go for the automatic and never experience this oddity anyway.
Overall the Escape Ambiente drivetrain is smooth and willing, with a characterful note when pushed hard but respectably quiet at all other times.
As mentioned before, it is a breath of fresh medium SUV air to have this type of engine at entry level and makes daily driving much more enjoyable, particularly if in hilly areas or carrying a full load of passengers and luggage. We also found the Escape engine to also be a confident companion on the motorway or country roads at the national speed limit.
It is still no firecracker – the more expensive 2.0-litre turbo-petrol versions fill that role with power and torque outputs to trouble the segment’s sportier models – but it does have a real sweet spot between 3000 and 5000rpm that is great for overtaking or when exploiting the Escape’s nifty handling on a twisty road.
Most disappointing was the Escape’s thirst during the parts of our week-long test that took place in Melbourne’s inner suburbs. We recorded a hefty 12.3 litres per 100 kilometres – that’s a lot heavier than the official urban-cycle figure of 7.9L/100km. The best we got on the motorway was high eights, when the official highway figure is 5.4L/100km.
Ride and handling
Rolling on the smallest Escape wheel and tyre package available, the word that came most frequently to mind when assessing this vehicle’s ride quality was ‘absorbent’.
The damping is excellent, quickly regaining control after big hits and effectively quelling the worst attempts of poor surfaces to shake occupants or knock the car off-line. It is genuinely up there with some of the best premium offerings.
Imperfections and potholes are not completely ironed out, as there is an underlying firmness that enables the Escape to handle with considerable finesse despite its rather hefty 1569kg kerb weight.
Like the ride quality, the Escape’s steering is among the best around regardless of price. It is sharp and responsive with a buttery smoothness as the wheel is turned from lock to lock. We never felt it was too light or too heavy, whether on a country lane or supermarket car park.
This all translates into a fun point-and-squirt feel when negotiating traffic, ease-of-use when navigating clogged urban streets and plenty of confidence when going for a blast on a mountain pass. Whereas some SUVs can feel aloof, the Escape keeps the driver connected to what is going on underneath.
In fact, the latter can take some getting used to at higher speeds and the Escape can initially feel a little nervous around the nose due to its darty responses. It’s just eager, and once accustomed it is a lot of fun.
There is a bit of lean into corners but it feels controlled and settles quickly, which is also true of quick direction changes. The Escape really is a nimble thing, and its relationship with the dynamically deft Focus shines through in terms of smiles per mile.
With the little turbo engine powering just the front wheels, we rarely struggled for traction and while the 55-section tyres are designed for comfort rather than speed, grip levels were enough to enjoy brisk progress without jeopardising our driving license on all but the tightest of turns.
Considering the extra weight of the optional all-wheel-drive system, not to mention the cost, we don’t think it is worth selecting Escapes with the 1.5-litre engine, unless you frequently drive on loose or slippery surfaces.
The stability control is well-tuned and unobtrusive. Its polite interventions to a driver’s over exuberance being more like the subtle cough from a librarian reminding children to be quiet than the yell of a sergeant major berating new recruits for less than perfect presentation. Both methods are effective, but we know which we prefer.
With the Escape, Ford has done the right thing by not messing with one of the Kuga’s strongest selling points – ride and handling.
Safety and servicing
Safety watchdog ANCAP carried over the Ford Kuga’s crash test results to the Escape. As such, the five-star rated Escape has one of Australia’s highest overall points scores with 36.33 out of a possible 37.
It got 15.33 in the frontal offset crash test and a full 16 out of 16 in the side impact test. A perfect 2 was achieved in the pole test, while whiplash protection was deemed ‘good’ and pedestrian protection ‘acceptable’.
Every Escape has electronic stability control, switchable traction control and dual front, front side and full-length curtain airbags as standard, plus a driver’s knee airbag. ANCAP noted the lack of standard autonomous emergency braking technologies but praised the auto emergency calling feature and configurable key system that enables parents to control certain features such as audio volume and top speed when their offspring are driving.
Servicing intervals are every 12 months or 15,000km. A lifetime capped-price servicing program costs $325 for the first three services, $585 for the fourth service, and $325 for the following three. Biannual brake fluid replacement is not included and costs $130. Ford offers a free loan car for each service.
Enzo Ferrari famously said he sold engines rather than cars, and that the car was something he would “throw in for free as something to hold the engines in”.
Unfortunately the vast majority of mid-size SUVs out there have this the other way around. They are all car and very little engine.
Not so with the Escape. From its very competitively priced base spec it has a decent engine that delights rather than frustrates. Our only real concerns about it are the fact it used rather a lot of fuel during our week with the car.
Then there is the excellent level of standard equipment and interior ambience that belies the pricetag, along with ride and handling that can hold their own against the best, regardless of price.
If you do not require heaps of rear space or a big boot, the Ford Escape Ambiente represents a lot of car for the money.
It is a shame that Ford has denied Ambiente customers access to hi-tech crash avoidance gear, but it does have a very high occupant protection score should the worst happen – and will automatically summon an ambulance afterwards.
And if you enjoy driving, nothing from the mid-size SUV segment can touch it for this kind of coin.
Hyundai Tucson Active 2.0 GDi manual from $28,590 plus on-road costs
At the time of writing Hyundai had just upgraded the base Tucson’s engine, but not by much and it is still thrashy and slow. Otherwise this is a brilliant mid-size SUV that deserves its sales success. Now fitted with Apple CarPlay and Android Auto, but otherwise way behind the Ford in terms of standard spec.
Kia Sportage Si 2WD from $28,990 plus on-road costs
An automatic as standard and a long seven-year warranty, plus some of the segment’s most striking looks. Underwhelming petrol engine as is the norm at this price point. But like its South Korean cousin the Tucson, falls short on standard kit compared with the Ford, and it’s a big price jump to the plusher SLi spec.
Mazda CX-5 Maxx 2.0 FWD manual from $28,690 plus on-road costs
Newest kid on the block and even more upmarket in feel than previously, while the uncomfortable seats and road noise have been addressed over its otherwise excellent predecessor. Under-engined, especially compared with the Escape, so if you are tempted by the Mazda we recommend you spend extra on a punchier 2.5-litre petrol engine option to make the most of its famously fun dynamics.
Toyota RAV4 GX 2WD manual from $38,550 plus on-road costs
Running updates keep the RAV4 relevant among strengthening competition, and it still drives much better than you’d expect. This fleet special suffers from poverty-pack equipment levels though, and it is gutless with the basic 2.0-litre engine.
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