Automakers love to refer to next-generation models as "all new," although often the changes are just more of the same old vehicle with a new metal skin.
Ford, however, isn’t kidding when it says the 2013 Escape is all new. In fact, this sleek, sculptured compact SUV has nothing in common with its boxy predecessor except the blue oval badge on its grille.
Launched in 2000, the Escape attracted a legion of owners, becoming the sales leader in its segment for years despite its rather mundane styling.
It was functional and affordable, ideal for folks looking for a vehicle that could multi-task as the family hauler, making the weekly shopping runs, lugging kids and equipment to arenas, gyms or playing fields, yet roomy and comfortable enough for holiday trips.
Time for new duds
The two-box Escape, however, has been showing its age lately in the face of stiff competition from the likes of the Honda CR-V, Toyota RAV4, Mazda CX-5 and the Korean siblings – Hyundai Tucson and Kia Sportage. There’s no doubt the Escape was due for a total makeover.
The 2013’s body styling is a huge departure from previous Escapes, with flowing lines and a sculpted front end that reflects the design theme Ford has adopted with its Focus.
That’s not surprising, considering the new Escape shares the same platform with that sedan. However, it will be interesting to see how current owners accept the new look.
During my time with an SE-trimmed tester, reaction was mixed – some loved the new look; others weren’t so keen. Ditto for the unique exterior colour on the tester – Ginger Ale Metallic. Actually, I liked it; it was a refreshing change from the silver hues that are currently so popular.
More room for cargo
Comparing the old and the new, the new iteration’s dimensions are nearly the same. Its length and width are slightly greater, while the height is a touch lower, but visually it’s difficult to notice any difference.
Inside, the additional length has been used to increase cargo space – there’s now 971 litres of space for stuff behind the rear seat, or 1,920 litres with the rear seatbacks folded.
Making the changeover to access that optimum cargo space is far easier, with the 60/40-split rear seatbacks flopping flat with a single tug on a lever mounted on the outside of the seat. Earlier models required the seat cushion to be flipped forward before the seatback could be lowered.
The rear head rests now flip forward, rather than having to be removed. The system is a significant improvement, but it still doesn’t match the convenience of the CR-V’s remote seatback release.
While the access level to the cargo area is lower, making loading easier, unfortunately the cargo floor is not flat when the seatbacks are lowered – there’s a step up to the seatback, making it more difficult to slide large items into the area.
The interior has been redesigned and again, opinions on the look were mixed.
Personally, I found the instrument panel to be too busy, although the key gauges were readily visible. I especially liked the bright blue gauge needles, which seemed to jump off the face when I glanced for a status update.
The high, domed centre stack, however, seemed overpowering. It was dominated by a multi-function eight-inch LCD touch screen and controller, with climate control switches in a cluster positioned lower in the stack. No doubt the layout’s efficiency would improve with familiarity, but I never felt comfortable with it during my one-week test session.
I also found various controls mounted on the leather-trimmed steering wheel to be somewhat overdone. There are 19 switches and buttons on the wheel.
The two multifunction pads on the wheel spokes were particularly annoying, with my hands contacting them as I turned the wheel, setting off all manner of strange responses.
Again, this is perhaps something one would get used to over time, but I found myself taking my eyes off the road to check which function I was activating on the steering wheel – not a good thing.
More people room too
Cabin room in the previous-generation Escape was a strong point, and it’s even better in this new iteration. There’s more hip room and leg room, especially in the rear seat.
Headroom is fine up front, but I found my noggin touching the headliner when I sat in the second row.
The front seating position is high, affording excellent visibility around the vehicle, although the seat cushions are short, reaching only to my mid thigh. Lateral support could be better – you feel like you’re sitting on the seats, rather than in them.
Heated seats are standard on the SE. My tester was also fitted with an optional ($1,750) power panoramic sunroof, which stretched over both rows of seating. It certainly gave the cabin a bright, airy feel, especially for back-row occupants.
Car-like on the road
The new Escape’s dynamics are fine. The ride was firm, but compliant, and the vehicle felt stable even in a stiff crosswind. Handling was crisp – more car-like than SUV – and the electric power steering was precise and responsive.
Three engines are offered in the new Escape – a 2.5-litre Duratec four cylinder (168 horsepower, 170 lb-ft of torque) is standard on the base S model; a turbocharged 1.6-litre EcoBoost four (168 horsepower, 184 lb-ft of torque) comes with the SE; and a 2.0-litre EcoBoost four cylinder (240 horsepower, 270 lb-ft of torque) drives the upscale SEL and Titanium models.
All are mated to a six-speed SelectShift automatic transmission. The tranny has a sport mode, but gear changes in that mode are activated by an annoyingly small button built into the side of the shifter knob.
I found the 1.6-litre four-banger in my tester delivered performance that would be adequate for most drivers, although extra punch was a bit slow to arrive when attempting to overtake at higher highway speeds.
Opting for the 2.0-litre four would be my preference if I was buying this car. Of course, upping the ante will take a toll at the gas pump – the 1.6 with all-wheel-drive is rated at 9.2 litres/100 kilometres in city driving and 6.6 on the highway, while the larger engine uses 9.8 litres in the city and 6.9 on the highway. During my 528 kilometres of mixed driving, the 1.6 four consumed 9.5 litres every 100 km.
Overall, the 2013 Escape is a huge step beyond its predecessor. It has styling, features and performance that should make Ford a prime contender again in the hotly contested compact SUV market.