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2003 Ford Escape XLT Sport 4x4 Review

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SEE ALSO: Ford Buyer's Guide

By Des Toups 

Base price: $24,980 
Price as tested: $26,995 
EPA mileage: 18 city/23 highway 

What buyers and car enthusiasts loved about the Ford Escape, upon its 
debut as a 2001 model, were its zippy handling, powerful engine, roomy 
interior and reasonable size. What they didn't like was its noisy, tinny, 
bare-bones feel. 
Despite that -- and a recall-checkered launch -- the Escape promptly 
became the class best seller. 
The cute-ute class has become far more competitive even since then, with a 
half-dozen new competitors introduced and the class bogey, Honda's CR-V, 
completely revamped. While none of its rivals has bettered the Escape's 
athletic moves, virtually all of them offer cushier, quieter interiors. 
Ford has done its best to address that issue for 2003, improving the 
quality of plastics and fabrics throughout the interior and adding upscale, 
luxury-car options. 
Improved materials are evident throughout the 2003 Escape. Plastics feel 
meatier, the headliner fabric is heavier, the door handles are noticeably 
sturdier. The whole interior looks somewhat richer than before, with the 
exception of the still-cheesy, still-cheap storage console buried beneath 
the dashboard. A new-for-2003 Limited model offers such amenities as a 
reverse sensing system, moonroof and heated seats, options not offered on 
most other small wagons. But there's still a ways to go. 
There's not much cushiness in the Escape. The leather upholstery (in our 
XLT Sport tester, a hard grade that could pass for vinyl) covers the 
firmest seats I've run across in years. Trim at the top of the doors 
remains unyielding plastic, rather than elbow-friendly padded vinyl. Knobs 
for ventilation still feel flimsy and disconnected, rather than mechanical 
and precise. 
There's also no respite from the noise generated by the powerful 3.0-liter 
V-6 and all-season tires, a discordant roar that's never unbearable but 
always present. Wind noise seems to have been tamed somewhat, but it's 
still among the noisier models. 
If the Escape flunks the feel test, it passes the ergonomics test with 
ease. Visibility is superb in every direction, the seats are quite 
supportive and comfortable (if very firm), the stereo a handy fingertip's 
length away. Window switches are where you expect them and the cruise 
controls are on the steering wheel. Rear passengers' feet slide under the 
front seats without obstruction. There aren't switch blanks where the 
options you didn't buy shout how cheap you were. 
Overall, this interior works far better than it feels. 
Ford's thinking with the forearm-length automatic transmission lever, 
which sticks out way beyond the steering wheel, is baffling. Honda takes 
advantage of column-mounted gearshift by clearing a usable path between the 
seats; others go in another direction and put in not only a large 
console/armrest (as Ford does), but put the gearshift there, too, for a 
sportier feel. 
In fact, a console-mounted automatic (or better yet, a five-speed manual) 
might better accentuate the Escape's most pleasurable feature: its carlike 
reflexes. No other mini-ute accelerates with such authority and has this 
much grunt to spare; no other mini-ute offers such razor-sharp steering. 
The Escape can attack a mountain road with enthusiasm and without motion 
sickness, its four-wheel independent suspension soaking up the abuse with 
no wallow, no histrionics. Braking is ferocious, decisive and reassuring. 
Among this class of tall wagons, only the Escape fulfills the promises made 
by its origins as a car rather than a truck. 
Yet the little Ford gives up nothing in the way of utility. The half-foot 
longer CR-V offers more elbow room for rear passengers, but front seat and 
cargo capacity are evenly matched. The Ford offers the ability to lock in 
all-wheel-drive for extra confidence on slippery roads; in its on-demand 
mode, it sends power to the rear wheels without the wheelspin and lurching 
experienced in the Honda. And the Escape can tow 3,500 pounds, a full ton 
more than the Honda -- the difference between a small camping trailer and 
sleeping on the ground. 
Of course, neither car is appropriate for off-roading (keeping in mind that 
a gravel path does not qualify as off-roading). For that, best stop at a 
Jeep dealer for a test drive of its ultra-competent but gas-sucking Liberty. 
As a driver, I'm a big fan of the Escape, which for all its harsh edges is 
the only member of this class that's even remotely interesting to 
twisty-road types. But as an owner, I'd find the CR-V's innovative 
interior, mild manners and undeniable quality pretty attractive, too. The 
top-of-the-line EX model includes a sunroof and stickers under $23,000, an 
easy two grand less than a comparable Escape. Of course, it gives up 40 
horsepower and any pretense of sportiness, but its more civilized demeanor 
makes it feel more expensive than the Ford. A few more bucks spent on the 
inside of the Escape, making this very fine wagon softer and quieter, would 
go along way toward capturing those buyers, too. 
The federal National Highway Traffic Safety Administration awards the 
Escape 5 stars out of 5 for side-impact crashes and for the driver 
protection in head-on crashes; passenger protection gets 4 stars. But in 
angled 40-mph crash-tests by the Insurance Institute for Highway Safety, 
the Escape earns a "marginal" rating, one step above the lowest, and is the 
lowest-ranking mini-ute. The IIHS said lower-leg injuries were likely. 
The Escape rates 3 stars out of 5 for rollover resistance according to 
NHTSA calculations, average for small sport-utilities. Antilock brakes are 
standard; side airbags are optional. 
The Escape is a Low-Emissions Vehicle and rates a 6 out of 10 on the EPA's 
air pollution scoring system (about average for small sport-utes; the CR-V 
rates an 8). The Escape's EPA ratings of 18 mpg city and 23 highway are 
well below average for the class; the CR-V betters both numbers by roughly 
5 mpg. We got 20 mpg in vigorous city driving. 
Ford plans a gasoline-electric hybrid version of the Escape for 2004 that 
pollutes 90% less and offers V-6 performance but gets twice the gas mileage. 

Des Toups is a Seattle free-lance writer whose work has appeared in 
AutoWorld magazine, The Seattle Times, MSN Money and newspapers nationwide.