2003 Ford Escape XLT Sport 4x4 Review
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.