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First drive: Ford Escapes to the four

Great Escape: XLS Escape 2.3L is unofficially priced at an introductory $29,990.

Ford injects life into Escape off-roader range with a four-cylinder under $30,000

Ford logo4 Feb 2004

FORD has added an important new four-cylinder variant as part of a mild styling and specification update for its struggling Escape model line.

Released just days after Mazda announced a similar reshuffle for its Tribute off-roader range, which shares under-body components with its Ford sister car, the new Escape XLS 2.3L is officially priced at $31,990 – about $3000 below the now identically engined Tribute Limited Sport.

But an unofficial introductory offer will see Blue Oval dealers sell the new entry level Escape for as little as $29,990 initially, in an effort to stimulate sales. Meantime, Mazda’s manual-only, 2.0-litre four-cylinder Tribute Limited ($30,990) has been replaced by an auto-only 2.3-litre Limited Sport priced at $34,990.

Mazda sold 6394 Tributes in Australia in 2003 while parent company Ford managed only 3238 Escapes – well below expectations at just over half the volume.

Ford hopes the addition of a four-cylinder variant will boost monthly Escape sales from 300 to 400 per month - or around 4800 sales in 2004 – giving it a targeted five per cent share of the compact SUV segment.

Ford admits its two previous TV marketing campaigns for Escape failed because its initial launch program was not widely accepted and the second was pulled by the advertising standards. Supporting the new Escape push this time around will be a "Tough Stuff" TV ad airing nationally from February 12.

While Ford sees the addition of a four-cylinder to complement Escape’s 3.0-litre DOHC V6 variants as "a vital weapon in the burgeoning compact 4WD market segment", Mazda’s Tribute line-up has included a 2.0-litre entry model since launch, also in 2001.

The Escape range now consists of a four-cylinder XLS, plus V6-powered XLS, XLT and Limited models.

Powered by the same MZR 2.3-litre DOHC four-cylinder Mazda engine as the revised Tribute range opener, the least expensive Escape’s engine produces 108kW at 6000rpm and 201Nm of torque at 4500rpm – the same as the revised Tribute four.

Also found in Mazda6 (in which it produces 122kW/207Nm) and Mazda3 (115kW/203Nm), the 2.3 features a variable-length intake manifold system Ford calls VIS (Variable Intertia-charging System) and is mated, like Escape V6s, exclusively to a four-speed automatic transmission.

"About 80 per cent of compact 4WDs sold in Australia last year were powered by four-cylinder engines," said Ford Australia president Geoff Polites.

"The new 2.3-litre four-cylinder is the engine we’ve been waiting for to give prospective Escape customers an excellent range of vehicles to choose from."But the new XLS 2.3L variant is just one plank in Ford’s revised ZB Escape range, which also comprises new active safety features, some subtle suspension tuning and a number of styling changes.

While Escape’s on-demand all-wheel drive system is unchanged, more extensive local testing has resulted in the fitment of larger front damper piston valves (up from 32 to 35mm) for improved ride/handling. Anti-roll bar links have also been repositioned to enhance on-centre steering feel.

Escape XLS 2.3L comes with a new mechanical brake-assist system, while brake pads across the range now feature an improved compound (less sintered metal) to reduce noise, rotor wear and brake dust.

Three new colours plus painted bumpers, bodyside cladding and wheel arches headline the exterior styling changes across the Escape range.

Sand Dune (metallic gold), Amazon (dark green) and Ice (silver) bring the number of paint colours in the Escape palette to eight, of which only three are applicable to Limited models.

Escape XLT has a new five-spoke alloy wheel, power antenna and accent colour available in Exceed Silver or Moonlight Grey, while the Limited now features tinted glass on all rear windows.

While the XLS V6, XLT and Limited boast 16 x 7.0-inch alloys with 235/70 R16 tyres, Escape XLS 2.3L rides on 16 x 6.5-inch steel rims with 215/70 R16 rubber.

Inside, the XLS features a new-look two-tone dashboard, redesigned four-spoke steering wheel and black-finish instrument cluster. Interior trim is available in Flint (grey) or Pebble (stone), with cloth in the XLS and velour in the XLT. The leather seat interior in Limited is Pebble.

While the XLT and Limited feature an in-dash six-CD AM/FM seven-speaker audio system, XLS gets a single-CD AM/FM four-speaker job.

Tribute Limited Sport four-cylinder matches Escape XLS 2.3L by offering air-conditioning, remote central locking, power windows/mirrors, roof rails and the automatic transmission as standard equipment.

But for an extra $5000 Mazda’s up-specced Limited Sport improves on this by offering ABS, side airbags, alloy wheels, front foglights and a cargo cover as standard.

2004 Ford ZB Escape v 2004 Mazda Tribute pricing:
XLS 2.3L (a) $31,990
Limited Sport 4-cyl (a) $34,990XLS V6 (a) $33,990
Limited Sport V6 (a) $36,990XLT V6 (a) $37,990
Classic (a) $39,990XLT Limited (a) $41,750
Luxury (a) $43,350


800000”>DRIVE IMPRESSIONS:

FORD’S desire to offer a four-cylinder Escape in the mushrooming compact off-roader market, which has increased a massive 800 per cent since 1994 and now comprises half of all SUV sales in Australia, is understandable – not least because 80 per cent of all small SUVs are four-pots.

Equally understandable is Ford’s original decision not to make Escape available with the underpowered 2.0-litre variant that’s comprised around just seven per cent of Tribute sales since 2001.

But Tribute/Escape’s new 2.3-litre MZR engine is a different proposition altogether, delivering respectable power and torque outputs at a reasonably relaxed pace, with enviable fuel economy.

In fact, although the XLS 2.3L fails to match the XLS V6’s performance, the new four-cylinder variant surprises with reasonably spirited urge right from idle, followed by a surprisingly tractable midrange, no doubt thanks in part to the Mazda engine’s variable intake tract technology.

The top-end is a different matter, though, as a long and varied launch drive route through the hills of Adelaide’s McLaren Vale winery area proved the Tribute four does not reward higher revs with a corresponding performance increase.

27 center imageAbove 5000rpm the 2.3 makes more noise than action, and becomes somewhat coarse as it approaches the 6000rpm change point afforded by its exclusive non-sequential auto. But overall the 2.3 works well enough to forget about in daily use and matches-up with its four-speed slusher better than many other four-cylinder engines.

Operated by Escape’s familiar steering column-mounted shifter, it features an overdrive button which locks out fourth gear just like Falcon’s sequential-shift auto – a handy option around town where the extra response and engine braking improve driving convenience.

But the fact remains that with about 55 per cent of compact SUV buyers opting for an auto transmission, the absence of a manual 2.3L means Escape will not be on the shopping list for almost half of its potential customers.

But apart from its bargain-basement $29,990 introductory sticker price - which pits Escape directly against many more, slightly smaller compact SUVs like CR-V, Forester and the market-leading X-Trail for the first time – the other advantage wrought by the 2.3L is slightly better handling balance.

Offering slightly crisper turn-in and marginally better front-rear weight distribution (the 2.3 is up to 50kg lighter than the 3.0), the base Escape also benefits from across-the-range anti-roll bar mounting changes that deliver slightly better on-centre feel.

Escape’s new two-tone dashboard, steering wheel and seat trims are a noticeable step forward, but minor changes to front damper valving are harder to pick on the road and brake pad changes have done nothing to improve braking performance.

All up, however, the well sized and appointed Escape package now offers improved interior ambience, more refined steering and better value than before.

Meantime, at an introductory $29,990, the new XLS 2.3L is an attractive proposition alongside its more highly specified – and priced – four-cylinder Tribute twin, and against any of the more popular, more aggressively styled compact SUVs.

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