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Ford's Escape clause

Family resemblance: The Ford Escape's styling appears to draw its inspiration from the Land Rover Freelander and Ford Explorer.

Ford is gearing up to join the fray in the booming compact off-roader segment

21 Feb 2001

THE timely Escape may be just what the doctor ordered for Ford.

The Blue Oval has been struggling in local the passenger car arena - thanks largely to the lukewarm sales performance of the Falcon and to a lesser extent diminishing popularity of the soon-to-be-axed Festiva and Mondeo.

Enter the Escape - a ruggedly handsome newcomer pitched at the burgeoning compact off-roader segment.

Honda has already reaped the rewards of growing demand in this sector with its hot-selling CR-V and Ford has reason to be confident the Escape will lure many new buyers to the Blue Oval brand as well as help fill the void left by the demise of the Mondeo.

The newcomer goes on sale in mid-March with prices starting at $33,200 for the base model XLS, rising to $37,300 for the range-topping XLT.

This represents keen pricing given that a 3.0-litre V6 and four-speed automatic transmission are standard in both models.

Escape's nearest rivals on price are the Honda CR-V Sport auto ($35,990), Hyundai Santa Fe GL auto ($33,990), Land Rover Freelander SE auto ($39,950).

Ford's contender - and its Mazda Tribute V6 cousin - deliver more power and torque than any of these rivals, as well as offering greater levels of interior space.

Unlike the Escape, the Tribute lineup includes a four-cylinder model - the 2.0 Limited, which costs $29,990. But Mazda expects the V6 models to account for 85 per cent of its predicted 7200 annual sales.

Ford has set a more conservative forecast of 3000 sales between mid-March and the end of the year, which equates to around 300 sales per month.

Although marketed as an off-roader, 80 per cent of the Escape's buyers are expected to come from metro areas.

Ford suggests sales will be split 70/30 between XLS and XLT versions - although take-up for the latter is expected to be higher initially.

"More high-series models are sold at launch because the early adopters always want the latest and greatest," Ford Australia 4WD and commercial marketing manager Kevin Lillie said.

The Escape and Tribute are the result of a joint project between Ford and Mazda, but Blue Oval officials are at pains to point out that it is not just a case of badge engineering.

Although the Escape and Tribute share the same underpinnings, the only panels common to the two vehicles are the roof and floor pressings.

Ford has also specified different suspension settings and a slightly slower steering ratio for its contender.

Mr Lillie says Ford's priorities were to endow its vehicle with better ride quality and more relaxed driving characteristics than the sports-oriented Tribute. Escape's chunky styling is also meant to differentiate it from Mazda's more car-like offering.

Both wagons are powered by a 3.0-litre Duratec engine derived from the unit used in the Ford Taurus and Cougar.

This unit generates 150kW at 5900rpm and 266Nm at 4700rpm, far greater outputs than any of the Escape's direct rivals.

Mated to the engine is a four-speed auto, which is hooked up to a column shift - Ford says this set-up was chosen to create space for a large cubby between the seats.

In terms of dimensions, the Escape is shorter than a Honda CR-V, but it is significantly wider and taller. It tips the scales at a reasonably trim 1500kg.

Ford quotes fuel economy figures of 13.0 litres/100km around town and 8.0 litres/100km on the highway - not too shabby for a four-wheel drive with automatic transmission.

Like the Honda CR-V, drive is directed to the front wheels in normal circumstances but when the going get slippery an innovative rotary blade coupling diverts some of the power to the rear wheels.

There is no dual-range capability, but Ford says few Escape owners will venture beyond terrain more gruelling than gravel roads. Blue Oval officials suggest most Escapes will spend the majority of the time trundling around the suburbs.

Equipment levels are reasonably generous, with dual airbags, roof racks, single-slot CD player, remote central locking and power windows standard in both models.

Curiously though, Ford has opted to skimp on electrically-adjustable mirrors for the base model.

At least the up-spec XLT has this feature, in addition to 16-inch alloy wheels, anti-lock brakes, six-stack CD player, fog lights and cruise control.

But another notable omission is a centre lap-sash belt for the rear seat.

Visually, the Escape is a well-proportioned package that clearly stands apart from the Tribute.

Viewed from the front, it bears a striking resemblance to the Land Rover Freelander - but Ford says this is a coincidence even though the company now owns Land Rover.

Escape's rear end is reminiscent of the larger Explorer, but the two vehicle share no components.

On paper, the Escape has the right credentials to enable Ford to capture a reasonable slice of the compact off-roader segment. Its target of 3000 sales seems, if anything, conservative.

Drive impressions: The Escape may fit the bill perfectly for buyers seeking a "soft-roader" with wagon versatility. It is an appealing package that represents solid value for money.

Ford makes no bones about the fact the Escape was not designed to be a true mud-and-guts bush basher, but rather a versatile wagon that offers some degree of off-road ability.

There is an abundance of statistics that suggests the vast majority of four-wheel drives never venture off the beaten track and the Escape has been engineered accordingly.

A varied drive program at the vehicle's launch revealed it can tackle sand dunes and rutted tracks in its stride, yet does not feel like a truck when pottering around town.

Escape is built on a monocoque chassis with independent suspension all around, which means it delivers relatively car-like driving characteristics on bitumen.

Refinement levels are beyond reproach and it feels sprightlier than any of its rivals thanks to the willing 3.0-litre V6 nestling under the bonnet.

The column shift auto is not as nice to use as a T-bar, but perhaps it is just a question of getting used to the wand-like device.

There is enough space inside to accommodate five adults in reasonable comfort but, as mentioned before, a lap-sash centre belt would have been nice in the rear seat.

Overall, the Escape appears a competent package that offers a useful blend of practicality and recreational appeal.

Ford's lineup will receive a useful boost with its introduction.

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