Redesigned compact crossover ready to challenge the best

by: FORD MOTOR CO. - The all-new 2013 Ford Escape drives as good as it looks.Ford got very ambitious with its redesign of the 2013 and largely succeeded. The top-of-the-line version now competes well against such upscale compact crossovers as the Acura RDX instead of lagging significantly behind them.

For many years, the Escape has been an unpretentious, bread-and-butter SUV. Designed to look more truck-like than its competitors, it was relatively unsophisticated. It could be ordered with either front-wheel-drive or four-wheel-drive, and was powered by either an inline four-cylinder engine or a V6. Although a hybrid version was available, its mileage was not spectacular.

The last-generation Escape was obviously good enough for many buyers. There are a lot of them on the road, after all. But the compact crossover market has gotten increasingly competitive in recent years. Competitors have brought many redesigned and all-new models that topped the Escape in many ways, including the revised Honda CR-V and the all-new Mazda CX-5 with an improved conventional four-cylinder engine that gets better mileage than the Escape Hybrid.

So Ford clearly had to do something with the Escape. The surprise is how much the 2013 version is improved. The changes are as dramatic as those between Ford's last generation Explorer and the current model. Basically, both have gone from being old-fashioned truck-based SUVs to thoroughly contemporary car-like crossovers. The new Escape ups the game even more by offering three inline four cylinder engines, a 2.5-liter that produces reasonable 168 horsepower, a turbocharged 1.6-liter that produces a more respectable 178 horsepower and a turbocharged EcoBoost 2.0-liter that produces a whopping 240 horsepower. All are mated to a smooth-shifting six-speed automatic transmission.

Just looking at the new Escape shows how much it differs from the 2013 model. The box-on-box look is replaced by a much more angular and aggressive styling. A huge air dam dominates the front end. The sides are sculpted and feature large rear fenders, giving the new Escape a much sportier stance. The rear end is wa ell-designed series of creases and folds that look far more Asian that domestic. Viewed from behind, it's also apparent that the new Escape is relatively tall for a compact crossover, something that pays off with impressive interior space.

Like the exterior, the interior is thoroughly modern. The dash is an intricate collection of angles and edges. The old fashioned center control stack is replaced with a well integrated touch screen and smaller array of knobs and buttons. The center console is raised and shaped to hold both a large transmission shift level and hand brake lever, creating a sporty impression.

The 2013 Escape is available in four trim levels, the base S, the more loaded SE, the even more loaded SEL and the fully loaded Titanium. As usual, our test car was the top-of-the-line Titanium version, complete with AWD, the EcoBoost engine, a stiffer suspension and heated front leather seats. We can't say how the other models drive, but our maxed-out Titanium version was very impressive — fast when pushed, with a supple ride and good handling though the corners.

The well-optioned interior increased the driving experience. The seats were both supportive and comfortable, and the leather wrapped steering wheel and shift level felt just right. The touch screen was relatively easy to figure out and use. About the only thing preventing our test car from being considered a luxury crossover was the lack of leather time on the dash and doors. The plastics were high quality and soft to the touch, however.

Rear seating room was good for a compact crossover, with plenty of head and leg room for two adults or three children. Cargo space was also good, even with the rear seat folded up.

We only had a few complaints. Visibility out the back is a little restricted because of the rear quarter panel design. It is too easy to mistakenly pull the transmission shift lever past Drive and into the manual Sport mode. Manual gear shifts are handled by an unsatisfying toggle switch on the knob.

And we only averaged around 20 miles per gallon, in large part because the EcoBoost engine was so much fun to drive fast. The turbocharged 2.0-liter inline four replaces a less powerful and even thirstier V6, however, so there's still a net gain in terms of performance. and mileage.

And, as the name implies, the Titanium version is a little costly. Although the base Escape starts at around $22,000, our test car was more than $34,000. Still, that's not bad considering that it now competes against some the best compact crossovers out there.

Facts and figures (all models)

• Model tested: 2013 Escape.

• Manufacturer: Ford.

• Class: Compact crossover.

• Layout: Front engine, front and all-wheel-drive.

• Style: Five door liftback.

• Engines: 2.5-liter inline 4 (168 hp, 167 lbs-ft); turbocharged 1.6-liter inline 4 (178 hp, 184 lbs-ft); turbocharged 2.0-liter inline 4 (240 hp, 270 lbs-ft).

• Transmission: Six-speed automatic with manual shift mode.

• EPA estimated FWD city/highway/mileage: 2.5 - 22/31/25; 1.6 - 23/33; 2.0 - 22/30 (AWD versions average 1-2 mpg less).

• Price: Beginning at approximately $22,470 ($30,370 as tested).

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