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Car Review: 2005 Ford Escape XLT 4WD

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2005 Ford Escape XLT 4WD

SEE ALSO: New Car Buyer's Guide for Ford

The 2005 model year sees the first major changes to Ford's popular Escape mini-SUV since its introduction four years ago. Most immediately noticeably, the styling has been freshened, not an uncommon occurrence for any car or truck after a few years. But that's merely the surface, as there are engine and chassis refinements across the line, and a new gasoline-electric hybrid model.

On the straight gasoline side, engine choices seem the same at a glance, with an entry-level four-cylinder and, unusually for the mini-ute crossover class, a 3.0-liter V6. But the new 2.3-liter ``Duratec'' four replaces the old 2.0-liter ``Zetec,'' and improves upon it considerably with an additional 26 horsepower - to 153 - and 15 lb-ft of torque - to 152. The 3.0-liter ``Duratec'' V6 is the same basic engine as has been in V6 Escapes since 2001, with the same 200 horsepower, but it has a new engine management system for improved throttle response, and changes to engine mounts reduce vibration. The hybrid uses a modified version of the Duratec four-cylinder engine in a full-hybrid drivetrain, and will be the subject of an upcoming test.

Front-wheel drive, with four-wheel drive as an option, is expected in the small crossover class, and the Escape has fit that description since day one. But the old ``Control Trac II'' four-wheel drive system, which featured two driver-selectable settings, automatic front-rear torque split and locked center differential, has been replaced by the ``Intelligent 4WD'' system, which uses a computer-controlled center clutch to engage the rear wheels as needed. The control computer uses data from sensors at all four wheels and the accelerator to determine how much torque to send to the rear wheels to prevent wheel slip. Ford claims that Intelligent 4WD is transparent in operation, and improves fuel economy ever so slightly compared to the old system. It is available with both engines.

Lastly, additional soundproofing materials have been added, the brakes have been upgraded, and the suspension has been re-tuned to improve the ride quality and handling. There are three trim levels, XLS, XLT, and Limited, with a variety of options and option packages offered. I've just spent a week with a 4WD XLT V6. The last Escape I drove, shortly after it was introduced, was a little soft in the suspension. This one was much better, firmly-sprung and damped for sporty handling and a fun-to-drive character, but not uncomfortable at all. The extra soundproofing and new engine mounts reduce noise, vibration, and harshness, further increasing driving pleasure. As always, power from the V6 was very good, and four-cylinder customers should get a much-improved experience this year. The seemingly small, but significant, improvements to this year's Ford Escape keep it at the head of its class.

APPEARANCE: Although the Escape's basic mini-Explorer shape remains unchanged, new headlights and new front and rear fascias give it a fresh new look. The new pieces are a little more angular, and give it a slightly more assertive stance - ``aggressive'' just isn't going to work to describe a small, urban-oriented crossover. Chrome trim is minimal. Built-in fender flares, with plastic-clad extensions, give a sporty look, and the prominent character line on the side that joins the wheel arches removes any chance of slab-sidedness. The dropped hood center gives the Escape a more sports car-like than truck-like character. Its styling is generally understated, not overly aggressive or macho like some other SUVs. The side cladding should protect from common minor parking lot combat damage. Running boards are available, but are hardly necessary because of the low step-in height.

COMFORT: There is more change inside than out, with revisions to the instrument panel and a new center console that features more storage space than the previous design. The seats are also new. Ford claims they offer greater comfort and support, and I won't argue. With medium-firm padding and good side support, they would not be out of place in a sporty sedan. The driver's seat of my XLT test vehicle had power adjustment for the cushion, including height, and a manual back; the front passenger seat is manual. Black-on-white instruments and silvery plastic trim give it a touch of contemporary sport-import style. The controls, even for the optional ``Mach 360'' audio system, are simple and easy to use. Rear seat room is good, aided by a nearly-flat floor. It's split 60/40, with flip-up cushions for a flat load floor, to give maximum cargo versatility. Tiedowns in the cargo area can be useful. As with other Ford SUVs, the rear window opens separately from the tailgate for quick access to small items. The spare tire is located underneath the body, as in a pickup.

SAFETY: Ford's ``Personal Safety System,'' a combination of sensor-managed frontal airbags and safety belt pretensioners, is now standard in all Escapes. Occupant classification sensing determines the weight of front seat occupants for optimum airbag deployment. The ``Safety Canopy'' system of sensors and side-curtain airbags is available, and can add protection in the event of a rollover. Antilock brakes are standard on all models; V6 four-wheel drive models have four-wheel discs.

ROADABILITY: The 2005 Escape's sportier exterior and interior looks actually herald a driving experience that has much more sport than most small sport-utilities. Spring and shock settings are firmer than they were in the past, for much less body roll in corners and less pitch and yaw on poorly-paved surfaces. The comfort level is still high - think high sporty wagon and you'll be about right. My test Escape had the Intelligent 4WD system, and it worked remarkably well, getting the engine's considerable power to the ground with a lack of fuss. Much fun was had on tight, twisty ``sports car'' roads that are normally merely endured, slowly, in an SUV, even a small one. Interior noise levels were comparable to a small sedan's. It looks like a truck, it can be filled with stuff like a truck, but there is no conventional truck in the Escape's heritage, and that makes for a great vehicle on the road. With eight inches of ground clearance, bumps, chuckholes, and road debris that are hazardous to a sedan's health are not problems, and dirt and gravel forest service roads should be fine.

PERFORMANCE: With 150 horses now, four-cylinder Escapes ought to be much quicker than earlier four-cylinder models. With 200 horses available from the XLT's 3.0-liter twincam 24-valve aluminum-alloy V6, acceleration and hill-climbing present no problems. And, with the towing package, a V6 Escape can tow up to 3500 lbs, far more than most small crossover SUVs. The four-speed automatic transmission is well-suited to the engine's power characteristics.

CONCLUSIONS: The Ford Escape has significant improvements for 2005, and combines its utility with a good dose of sport.

2005 Ford Escape XLT 4WD Base Price $ 24,705 Price As Tested $ 27,415 Engine Type dual overhead cam 24-valve aluminum alloy V6 Engine Size 3.0 liters / 183 cu. in. Horsepower 200 @ 6000 rpm Torque (lb-ft) 196 @ 4850 rpm Transmission 4-speed automatic Wheelbase / Length 103.1 in. / 174.9 in. Curb Weight 3464 lbs. Pounds Per Horsepower 17.3 Fuel Capacity 16.5 gal. Fuel Requirement 87 octane unleaded regular gasoline Tires P235/70 SR16 Goodyear Wrangler SR-A Brakes, front/rear vented disc / solid disc, antilock standard on XLT Suspension, front/rear independent MacPherson strut / independent multilink Ground clearance 8.0 inches Drivetrain Front engine, on-demand single-range 4-wheel drive PERFORMANCE EPA Fuel Economy - miles per gallon city / highway / observed 18 / 22 / 18 0 to 60 mph 8.8 sec Towing Capacity 3500 lbs with towing package OPTIONS AND CHARGES XLT No Boundaries Package - includes: P235/70R16 tires, black step bars, Class II trailer towing, 16-inch painted aluminum wheels, molded-in color wheel lip $ 1,055 Mach AM/FM stereo with 6-CD in-dash audio $ 565 Retractable cargo cover $ 75 Safety Canopy & side airbags $ 425 Destination & delivery $ 590