Car reviews - Ford - Escape - XLT 5-dr wagon
Engine/transmission pairing, on and off-road manners, equipment level
Room for improvement
Bland interior, column shifter, centre-rear seat safety omissions
26 Jun 2001
By TERRY MARTIN
WHO would have thought that of all vehicle manufacturers, Ford and Holden would be among the last to enter the booming recreational four-wheel drive market?
While Holden is still without a contender, Ford, sharing its product with Mazda, has finally introduced the Escape - more than three years after Honda, with its CR-V, and Subaru, with the Forester, started bowling suburban Australians over.
What a run they've enjoyed. Honda had sold more than 34,000 CR-Vs here before the Escape touched the ground. And for its part, Subaru had waved off 25,000 Foresters.
Now everybody wants to get into the act.
Despite the lure of the corporate badge and V6 power, the Escape must contend with nameplates the calibre of RAV4 and Grand Vitara, plus other cheap or evocative offerings such as Freelander, Sportage and Santa Fe. Yep, Korea even got a couple of light-duty off-roaders up and running before the Blue Oval.
Mazda is also doing its utmost to present the Tribute in a better light than the Escape, with which it shares its platform and all mechanical components.
To succeed, the Escape must impress in all departments - price, packaging, accommodation and performance, both on the road and off it.
And it does just that.
There's not the attention to detail, not the polish in the presentation, to match the top sellers. There's no striking appearance that will turn heads.
But in XLT form, the Escape presents a strong value-for-money proposition. The price brings with it an energetic 3.0-litre engine, a well-matched four-speed automatic transmission and all the features you might expect: dual airbags, power steering, anti-lock brakes, air-conditioning, remote central locking, cruise control, electric windows/mirrors, six-disc CD stereo, variable intermittent wipers, roofrails, alloy wheels and front foglights.
Prospective buyers will, naturally, be pleased with the commanding view from the front pews. But they might also be less than impressed with the interior design.
Bland and basic are words that spring to mind here. Cloth door inserts and an enormous centre console armrest are small comforts in a cabin bathed in hard, unwelcoming grey plastic.
So large is the centre armrest that access to the handbrake (positioned on the left-hand side of the console) can be impeded. And there are other driver-oriented problems. The long column-mounted transmission lever, when in gear, can hinder access to stereo and temperature controls. Window switchgear is big, blocky and not altogether friendly to fingertips. The volume/on-off button on the stereo is on the far left-hand side. And the fixed aerial, positioned on the right-hand side of the bonnet, can be a distraction.
Topping it off, the cheap-looking and out-of-character white-faced instrument dials include a speedometer with intervals at 20km/h. A full point is given for 10km/h increments, but from where we're sitting the attention to detail is insufficient.
Otherwise, the controls present no great problems. The rotary temperature dials are big, the stereo head unit is high-mounted and cruise control buttons are placed conveniently on the steering wheel.
Built for America more than anywhere else, the Escape makes no attempt to provide access to the rear seats with the space liberated by the column shifter. Instead, it fills the void with an enormous centre console that contains big bins and a couple of mug/bottle holders - and, of course, the mother of all armrests.
The generous interior dimensions help provide excellent comfort for four people, though the driver's seat - which has the admirable addition of lumbar adjustment - would be better served with genuine height adjustment instead of a dial to alter seat cushion angle.
Like most offerings in this class, three people across the rear bench would put friendships to the test, although the Escape is better than most in this respect. The rear occupants are also treated to another impressive twin cupholder display, however the centre-rear occupant is left without a head restraint and a three-point seatbelt.
He'll no doubt be the one left holding his drink, too.
With its temporary spare tyre located under the luggage compartment floor, the tailgate is free to lift upward like a conventional hatch. It is lightweight and just high enough for average-sized adults to stand underneath without stooping. The rear glass also opens, however its release handle would be better off positioned near or on the glass itself rather than confusing matters by being tucked underneath the number plate recess alongside the tailgate release.
The cargo area itself is extremely generous in width (minimum width is 1040mm, maximum 1320mm), has a netted storage spot on each side, a 12V power outlet (adding to the two up front), luggage tie-downs, a convenient shopping bag net and a retractable, two-position security blind.
Child seat anchorage points are located in the roof headlining near the tailgate so as not to interfere with cargo - but the trade-off is a reduction in rear visibility when tether straps are employed.
Both the seatback and the seatbase split-fold forward to increase the 870mm depth from tailgate to seatback to 1320mm, at the same time creating a small barrier between the front seats and an almost-flat floor.
The centre rear safety exclusions and ergonomic blots up front excluded, the Escape packaging should suit most people.
And unlike some others in this class, it doesn't disappoint with its mechanical package either.
Developing an excellent 150kW at 5900rpm and 266Nm of torque at a high 4700rpm, the 3.0-litre quad-cam V6 has plenty of performance to compensate for the 1568kg kerb weight.
Fuel economy suffers at the hands of a driver who likes to press on, something the engine encourages with its strength in the higher reaches of the rev range.
It generates plenty of the noise in the process, but has no trouble keeping revs up and making light work of virtually all tasks required. The column shift does NOT encourage manual shifting, yet the gears are well matched to the engine and frantic searching for gears isn't a factor.
Handling is good by four-wheel drive standards, the 16-inch rubber providing acceptable grip into corners up to a point and body movement, while apparent, is kept largely under control.
The steering is direct and allows only a few niggles through the steering column when the Escape - which runs as a front-driver until slip is detected and torque is sent (seamlessly) to the rear wheels - encounters ripples in a corner.
The all-independent suspension is well equipped to dispense of potholes and most other rough-road irregularities, although corrugations in particular do send up unwanted vibration through the steering rack and the floor.
The tyres also create a fair bit of noise. Refinement is otherwise fine.
Off the beaten track the suspension allows good wheel travel and the four-wheel drive system, which uses a rotary blade coupling to govern front/rear power distribution, can be locked for a 50/50 torque split.
The vehicle would be better served with low-range gears, for while the "4x4 Lock" provides excellent traction and the ability to crawl steadily up steep gradients, descending even modest inclines without using the brakes is impossible - if damage is to be avoided. While the brakes themselves perform well (rear drums and all), engine braking is not a strongpoint.
Every bit as good off-road as most of its rivals, Escape is always going to be limited by its engine characteristics, lack of low-range gearing, scant underbody protection and reliance on a space-saver spare wheel.
Even considering those factors, the Ford soft-roader is more competent than we might have expected and one of the few in this class to strike a good balance between on-road and off-road ability.
Decent accommodation, an excellent engine/transmission pairing and a high level of equipment should ensure the XLT Escape is not simply another five-door wagon that fights over the food scraps left by CR-V and Forester.
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