Aug 102005
 

A joint venture creation, diversely designed by two manufactures with different history and philosophy to allocate the agile Escape/Tribute.

Background
This compact-size SUV was acquired as a rental vehicle with 19,094 miles on the odometer at the time of pick up. It stayed with us for 24 hours. We drove approximately 440 miles – the shortest we have never tested. We traveled from the Bay Area to Fresno via the dull I-5 and US-99. We took the scenic and enjoyable stretch of US-152 back from the flat hot San Joaquin Valley to the outskirt of Silicon Valley. The entire trip in the Escape was with 2 average size adults. The averaged fuel consumption was 21.5 mpg.

Introduction
Ford introduced the brand new Escape in late 2000 as a 2001 model to fill in the segment between the truck-based V6 compact SUV and the 4 cylinder car based SUVs – similar to the just introduced Hyundai Santa Fe in 2000. The Escape remains its fundamental design since its introduction. The Escape is in co-development with Mazda, and Mazda had major involvement in the design. Mazda Tribute is the twin of the Escape, and the late comer – Mercury Mariner. The Escape is assembled in Missouri. The tester is the middle line of the Escape line which equips with Ford Motor’s aluminum head and block 3.0L DOHC 24 valves Duratec V6 engine. The basic architecture (different tuning, and cylinder head configuration) of this engine can also be commonly found in Jaguar S-Type, Mazda MPV, 6 and various vehicles under Ford’s corporate umbrella. Engine is built in Cleveland, OH. The engine is transversely mounted driving the 4 speed automatic O/D transmission(Ford’s CD4E). The engine power is then transmitted to the transfer case controlled by Ford’s Intelligent 4WD System to divide engine power to the proper wheels. The engine pumps out 200hp@6,000rpm and 193Ib-ft of torque @ 4,850rpm. Traction is provided by a set of P235/70R16 Continental Contitrac tires. The chassis (U204) design is based on Mazda’s GF platform that can be found under a ’98 – ’02 model Mazda 626, the GF platform is modified to support a compact size SUV. The Escape is supported by independent MacPherson struts with stabilizer bar in the front; the rears are multilink independent suspension with separated coil springs and shocks. Stopping power is generated by vented front and solid rear discs brakes with 4 wheel ABS.

Impression
Even we may not had the time that we would like with the Escape, but our initial impression is based on Escape’s welcomed, bright and open feel of the cockpit – thanks to its white faced gauges, and its active and responsive driving dynamics. The equipped engine in our tester enhanced the activeness in Escape’s fun to drive factor. Engine output is linear and rev smoothly to its respectable 6,500rpm – thanks to the larger bore and stroke (oversquare) design. Ford Duratec V6’s fast revving, and its emission of high quality resonance characteristics made us think twice about the engine’s origin. It could easily be mistaken it as a Japanese unit. The structure of the engine is identical to most Japanese V-6 DOHC, multiple valves per cylinder, aluminum heads and blocks…etc. Some might think the engine noise is loud and coarse, but we don’t think this is an annoying issue. The throttle input from the driver translates to instant engine response; however the throttle tends to be sensitive. Gas pedal “tip in” seldom behave like a “on & off” switch, so it takes sometime to drive smoothly especially when reapplying throttle at low vehicle speed situations. Despite, the fun factor the engine provides. We were a little disappointed at the average fuel mileage as the result of our mostly freeway lope in this test.

Ford’s slick 4 speed automatic transmission also in favors the Escape’s liveliness. The transmission shifts smoothly and willingly. 1st and 2nd gear provides brisk acceleration off the line and passing power. The change of velocity sensation tends to fade off especially when traveling at a slight incline or freeway on ramps when the transmission shifts into the relatively longer 2nd gear at the engine’s 6000rpm redline under full throttle condition. With the Escape’s curb weigh at around 3400Ibs, the 200hp engine is not particular outstandingly fast; however 85% of the time, the Escape is sufficiently potent to zip around. The top gear is a hair too long to take advantage of the better fuel mileage longer gear ratio offers -2,200rpm at 70mph but since the transmission actively downshifts the slightly longer gear ratio in top gear is not an issue. Even lacks of electronic gear selection, but the willingness of the transmission makes the Escape responsive to the slight demand for the driver’s right foot. There were no incidents of jerkiness nor hesitations when shifting at any engine rpm; shifting are butter top smooth.

The suspension and steering setup of the Escape emphasized its handling responsiveness. The rack-and-pinion steering provides precious, communicative feedback and feel. No doubt, that it has no match to sports sedan’s precision, but it is an above average setup in the compact size SUV world. Suspension tuning isn’t car like as Hyundai Santa Fe or how a unibody chassis should feel like. Suspension is stiff that also keeps the driver informed of what’s happening underfoot. Exhibit quite a bit of unnecessary body motion and the ride tends a little choppy from time to time – like it is riding on heavy duty leaf springs in the rear, when traveling on roads with bumps and humps. However, the stiffness in the suspension pays off at corners. The body roll is nicely controlled despite, the Escape’s 69 in. height. When approaches the Escape’s cornering limit, the Escape safely exhibits moderate understeering, and semi unconscious reaction by lifting throttle will correct the problem. In car enthusiasts’ point of view, the Escape can be sporty to haul around mountain twists when going camping where a sports compact car won’t be suitable for the job. The equipped tires provide sufficient traction and enhanced the Escape’s crisp handling but emit higher than expected road noise.

The chassis of the modified Mazda 626 platform seems a little dated however. There are noticeable body flex when load is apply to one corner of the car like going through a speed bump at an angle, the Escape interior panels and doors makes some minor noise indicating the chassis is moving at a different rate than the doors and panels. Chassis doesn’t seem to be as solid and stiff as the Hyundai Santa Fe, but the Escape is at about 300 Ibs lighter. Despite the slightly dated chassis, the lighter curb weigh enhanced the previously mentioned responsiveness in Escape’s driving dynamics.

Braking feel is solid once the pedal travel passes the first inch of unnecessary freeplay. Initially the brake feels like it needs slightly higher effort to operate, but it doesn’t seem to be an issue once we got used to it. We noticed no fading and satisfied with the Escape’s brakes. The braking distance is shorter than what we have expected from a vehicle at this size.

The Escape provided basic but yet sufficient amenities for its occupants. The front seats are firm and supportive and reasonable on the lateral support but it causes no tiredness at a long trip. The desired driving positions are easily found. The stock sound system with in-dash 6 CD changer provided acceptable sound from its 4 speakers and by placing the rear speakers at the rear door panels allows the use of lower output stereo system since the speakers are closer to the occupants. Not a bad move to do that since on the Escape, the road noise emitting from the tires are quite high especially from the trunk area, if the speakers are placed in the trunk instead, the sound quality can be distorted by the road noise. Wind noises are somewhat higher than we would expect. The Hyundai Santa Fe that we tested has better noise isolation and muted then the Escape. Similarly the engine note in the Escape are higher as well, fortunately the engine notes sound has a high quality feel to it, very import like, very unlike the commonly sound thrashy domestic engines. The gauge cluster layout is refreshingly straightforward but the linetype and the needle indicator on the speedodometer is too thick to glance the vehicle speed.

Workmanship is well built for a domestic brand but a hair shine from imports. Interior material quality is good. Occasionally, interior panel tends to squeak when climbing a steep driveway but it is related to the slight chassis flex. The switchgears are uncomplicated to use and very self explanatory. Visibility around the car is generally good, the rear mirror view is good for a SUV where the rear seat headrest tends to block off the view, and the trunk window is being so far away – those theater style step up rear seat will definitely make the rear view worse but this is not the case for the Escape. The cargo space is enormous especially with the 60/40 split rear seats folded flat down with the headrest removed.

The number of Escapes on the road is the evidence on how well it has been selling for the past five years without any changes or significant face lifting. The number of sales, not mainly contributed by its market segment but also due to its thought-out engineering, respectable workmanship and value of the product as well. For its $24,000 invoice tag, we would think the Escape is above average in this compact size SUV segment. With Mazda’s heavy involvement in Escape’s development, we should gain slightly more confidence in the Escape’s reliability. Since Ford is so familiar with its recall campaigns – the Escape was plagued with recalls when it was first introduced in 2001. Even Ford’s flag ship – the Ford GT, are very problematic, and some of Ford’s solution to correct the GT’s problem areas are not the ideal industrial practice.

Overall Impression
Scoring System:

Performance & Acceleration: 7
Comment: Brisk off the line acceleration, and passing power. Zippy enough to be a fun.

Drivetrain: 7
Comment: Smooth engine, with proper engine note. Import like V6 quality. Fear in long term reliability since it still carry the FORD brand.

Handling & Cornering: 7
Comment: Outstanding for a SUV.

Brake Feel: 7
Comment: Good brake feel, and stops shorter than expected.

Ride Characteristic: 7
Comment: Car enthusiasts’ preferred ride quality, can be choppy for some. Some excessive body motion.

Interior Comfort: 7.5
Comment: Spacious and practical. Seating and driving position received no objection.

Workmanship: 7
Comment: Well done for a domestic brand. A hair shine from imports.

Functionality: 9
Comment: Useful, as any SUV. Without the bulkiness of a Suburban.

Functionality: 5.5
Comment: Nothing fancy here. Fancy technology doesn’t always require for a car to work in harmony.

Afterthoughts
The Escape and Santa Fe’s market segment is relatively broad, since they slot themselves between a Toyota Rav4 and a Nissan Xterra segment. The Escape and Santa Fe offer the comparable economic to small SUV if 4 cylinder engines are chosen, and with offroading capability slight closer to a body-on-frame hardcore style Xterra. If the consumer thinks the Rav4 is too wimpy, and the Xterra is too hardcore then Escape and Santa Fe are the perfect choice. When travel back half a decade ago, Santa Fe and Escape seems to be the only ones slotted in this segment. Nowadays, most of the car manufactures have at least one model especially designed for this segment – crossover SUVs (car based unibody platform). In order for the Escape to stay in the game, Ford should start looking into revising it’s somewhat dated platform, or stiffen it more, while keeping the responsive driving dynamics. However, the ’05 Ford Escape Hybrid is another good start for the Escape line up. END

Sorry, the comment form is closed at this time.