Fords first car-based sport utility vehicle debuted for the 2001 model year and was derived from the Mazda 626 platform a result of Fords controlling interest in Mazda, which produces the similar Tribute. Developed in tandem, both compete against other car-based SUVs, such as the Honda CR-V, Hyundai Santa Fe, Subaru Forester and Toyota RAV4. All are considerably smaller than traditional truck-based SUVs and promise carlike ride and handling, as well as the security of optional four-wheel drive (4WD).
Changes to Fords smallest SUV for 2003 are considerable. A new Limited model features body-colored cladding and moldings for a monochromatic look. The Limited offers such luxuries and convenience features as side-impact airbags, heated front seats and mirrors, leather upholstery, a Mach audio system with an in-dash six-CD changer and Fords Reverse Sensing System.
A dual-loading No Boundaries rack system goes on the XLT Sport edition. An XLT Appearance Package features Dark Shadow Gray fascias and cladding, step bars and 16-inch machined-aluminum wheels. Power window and door-lock switches in the front are lighted for 2003.
A hybrid version of the Escape is supposed to go on sale during 2003, likely as a 2004 model. The hybrid will have a small gasoline engine and an electric motor to yield frugal fuel economy. This would make Ford the third automaker behind Honda and Toyota to offer a hybrid powertrain in the U.S. market and the first to have one in a truck-type vehicle.
The unibody four-door Escape rides a 103.1-inch wheelbase, measures 173 inches long overall and stands 69.1 inches high. Traditional-type SUV styling on the Escape resembles some of Fords full-fledged trucks. The rear liftgate has a flip-up window that opens separately, so it functions like those on Fords larger SUVs. The Escape has a four-wheel-independent suspension. Standard tires measure 15 inches in diameter, and 16-inchers are also available.
The Escape seats five occupants. It is fitted with two front bucket seats and a three-place folding rear bench that is split on the XLT model. Cargo volume behind the rear seat measures 33.1 cubic feet; by folding the rear seat and creating a flat load floor, that space grows to 69.2 cubic feet. Despite the compact exterior, theres space inside with the liftgate closed for two mountain bikes that can be secured by standard mounting points. Standard equipment includes a CD player, a tilt steering column, air conditioning, remote keyless entry, and power windows, door locks and mirrors.
Under the Hood
The Escapes base 127-horsepower, 2.0-liter Zetec four-cylinder engine teams only with a five-speed-manual gearbox. Most Escape models come with the optional Duratec 201-hp, 3.0-liter V-6, which is also used in the companys Taurus sedan. The V-6 engine drives a four-speed-automatic transmission, and it comes with the gear selector on the steering column. The Escape can have either front-wheel drive or ControlTrac II 4WD, which engages automatically, as needed, to maintain traction. An optional towing package for the V-6-equipped Escape allows a cargo-towing capacity of up to 3,500 pounds.
Antilock brakes are standard on all Escape models. Electronic brake-force distribution (EBD) is standard on XLT Escapes and optional on the XLS version. Side-impact airbags for the front seats are optional in the XLS and XLT models and standard in the new Limited.
The Escape is easy to drive and quite stable on the highway. It steers with a very light touch, which imparts a sufficient level of confidence. Frisky performance emanates from the V-6 engine as the Escape pulls out from a standstill with spirit. The automatic transmission shifts capably, without lumpiness in fact, its quite smooth for a truck.
Even at highway speeds, driveline noise is more noticeable than expected. Ride comfort is quite satisfying around town. Extremely short front-seat bottoms can impair comfort, but back support is fine. Occupants enjoy plenty of space in the front and rear. The backseat actually feels more comfortable than the front seat. On the negative side, the doors and overall construction feel a little more tinny than on some rival SUVs.