By Eric Peters, Automotive Columnist
The Ford Excursion and Explorer (the real one, with a V-8 and real 4WD) were done in by doubling gas prices, 16 MPG and a tail-spinning economy.
Lighter-duty (car-based) FWD/AWD crossovers like the Escape went from second-stringers to game-day players, in part because of the perception that they cost less to own and operate while still giving their owners most of the versatility that came with the SUV layout.
Well, that’s partially true, at least.
WHAT IT IS
The Escape is Ford’s compact, light-duty crossover SUV. It is available with front-wheel-drive or AWD and a four or six-cylinder engine.
Prices start at $21,240 for a FWD-equipped, four-cylinder XLS.
A top-of-the-line Limited with AWD and V-6 stickers for $26,170.
Ford also sells a hybrid version of the Escape, which starts at $30,570.
WHAT’S NEW FOR 2012
After a decade on the market without a major redesign (although there were updates in ’08 and ’09) the time has come for a wheels-up re-do.
That’s scheduled for the 2013 model year, which will be here about six months from now.
Meanwhile, the last of the current series will hold the line.
The base price of just over $21k can probably be haggled down to around $18k, given this is the final run of the “old” model and dealers should be eager to clear out the inventory.
Looks more rugged than most of the crossover competition.
Easy to live with, drives nicely.
WHAT’S NOT SO GOOD
Base price of $21k is higher than the MSRP of more up-to-date competition, including the Subaru Forester ($20,495).
Cramped back seats.
Gas mileage — excepting hybrid versions — is not especially good. Just 23 MPG average — with the four-cylinder and FWD. (My compact pick-up, with real-deal 4WD, gets about the same mileage but can actually go off-road and pull a 5,000 lb. trailer, two things the light-duty Escape cannot do.)
With a total redesign just months away, you’ll own Yesterday’s Ford if you buy an Escape today.
UNDER THE HOOD
Base model Escapes come standard with a 2.5 liter, 171 hp four cylinder teamed up with either a five-speed stick or six-speed automatic.
This engine is still competitive with the base engines used in competitors such as the Forester (which comes standard with a 170 hp 2.5 liter four cylinder engine) and Toyota RAV4 (also a 2.5 liter four, this one rated at 179 hp). The Ford’s optional six-speed automatic is also more up-to-date than the RAV4’s optional four-speed unit.
The downsides are strained acceleration (0-60 takes just under 10 seconds) and not-so-great gas mileage, which by the way is also true for many of these sort-of-SUVs. EPA rates the ’12 Escape with 2.5 liter engine, FWD and the more fuel-efficient six-speed automatic at 21 city, 28 highway — 23 MPG combined. For perspective, the current Nissan Xterra — which is a real SUV with off-road capability and available real 4WD (not AWD) — rates 15 city, 21 highway, 17 MPG combined. And that’s comparing the Ford’s four with the Nissan’s larger (and much more powerful) 4.0 liter, 261 hp V-6.
A more fair fuel economy cross-reference would be to take a look at the Escape’s optional 3.0 liter, 240 hp V-6, which rates city, 25 highway, 21 combined. With AWD, this drops to 18 city, 23 highway, 20 combined.
So, a difference of about 3 MPG, which isn’t much.
Again, this is equally true of other car-based crossover SUVs. I’m not picking on the Escape, just making an important point. There are many reasons one might want to buy a crossover SUV, including (usually) the more on-road-friendly ride and handling that comes with a car-derived (vs. truck-based) layout.
But if you believe you’ll be saving a lot of money on gas bills … well, don’t.
Either Escape engine — the standard 2.5 liter four or the optional 3.0 liter V-6 — can be ordered with FWD or (full-time) AWD, but the V-6 is only sold with an automatic transmission.
This version of the Escape can tow up to 3,500 lbs. — about the same as a current medium-sized car with a V-6.
ON THE ROAD
The Escape has good sight lines all around thanks the the traditional “box on box” design with relatively vertical (and tall) windshield and side glass. The electric power steering and compact dimensions also make the Escape very easy to park and maneuver in parking lots. It makes a great suburban/urban A to B’er.
The standard four cylinder is adequately powerful with FWD but on the borderline of too-slow (because too heavy) when tied to the optional AWD. Curb weight empty is 3,231 lbs. which is a lot of weight to ask 171 hp to drag around. It’s ok for close-in commuting and stop-and-go traffic but if you need highway legs, live in an area that’s got hills — or just like to be able to pass without feeling as though you’re givin’ ‘er all she’s got, cap’n!” — well, then order the V-6. It significantly improves throttle response, cutting almost two full seconds off the Escape’s 0-60 time and more importantly, leaving something in reserve when you need the thing to move.
The more traditionally boxy/tallish body (and 8.4 inches of daylight between the pavement and the underside of the floorpans) make the Escape feel like a traditional SUV when in traffic. You’re higher up than the people in cars and can see more to the side and ahead of you. This sense of commanding the road has long been one of the big reasons why SUVs (and crossovers built to emulate SUVs) have been so enduringly popular, gas mileage notwithstanding.
But because the Escape has a chassis and suspension more like a car’s (like other crossovers) it behaves more like a car in corners, which is one of the big reasons why crossovers have been replacing clunky-handling SUVs as mass-market everyday drivers.
AT THE CURB
One area where the current Escape’s age shows is interior space. Though it has a fairly upright, boxy shape it has less cargo room (66.3 cubes, max) than both the sleeker-looking Forester (68.3) and — surprisingly – significantly less cargo room than the similarly boxy-looking RAV4 (73 cubic feet). There is also less front seat legroom (40.4 inches vs. 43.1 inches of the Forester and 41.8 inches for the RAV4) as well as less headroom (just 40.4 inches, which is tight for taller drivers, especially when you order the sunroof) and dramatically less backseat legroom (just 35.6 inches vs. 38 inches for the Forester and 38.3 inches for the RAV4).
Another issue is the ordeal you have to deal with in order to fold flat the rear seats. First, you have to fold up the lower cushions, then you remove the headrests, then you can drop the seatbacks flat. This was the common approach three or four years ago; today, there are several models on the market with much easier to use systems that let you fold away the second row without major disassembly — or loose parts lying around afterward.
Ford gave the Escape’s interior look a major cosmetic makeover back in ’09, including a redone center stack and available ambient lighting system that first appeared on the Mustang a few years back. You can toggle between multiple backlighting (red, blue, yellow, green) for the instrument cluster and so on. Sync voice-command is available, as are high-end features like HD radio, parallel park assist and the latest gen GPS system with weather and traffic updates. The latter is bundled with a premium audio rig that includes?a music storage hard drive and SiriusXM.
Like all new Fords, the Escape comes standard with a programmable MyKey “smart” key that makes it possible to limit the vehicle’s speed as well as control other functions. Parents of teen drivers may like this feature. Frankly, I’d prefer it were optional because if you don’t need to worry about teen drivers, this is just one more piece of complicated (and probably expensive) technology that will eventually fail and cause you trouble down the road.
Ditto the also-standard Belt Minder buzzer which hits you with an obnoxiously loud PING! PING!! PING!! if you dare to even put the thing in Drive without buckling up for safety.
Where’s the buzz off button for this buzzer?
Some have criticized the Escape’s standard disc/drum brake system when compared to the more common four-wheel-disc systems found in many competitors. But there are up and downsides here to consider, too. On the upside, four-wheel-discs do generally provide better stopping power. But the downside is that four wheel disc brake systems are more easily damaged (for example, warped disc brake rotors caused by some knucklehead overtightening the lug nuts with an air wrench) and often cost more to fix. Rear drum brakes, as on the Escape, are usually very durable. And it’s hard to hurt cast iron brake drums — which can typically be reused several times before they must be replaced.
THE BOTTOM LINE
The main issue with the ’12 Escape is that it’s an older design and about to be replaced by something probably much-improved. But if you score a great deal on one — which ought to be very doable — well, then maybe the old could be the right one.