The 2001-2012 Ford Escape was one of the most popular compact SUVs when it was new. Less popular but identical in most key respects, was the Mazda Tribute. But how do they fare as used vehicles?
It’s hard to find a partnership that was better synchromeshed – to borrow an automotive term – than the corporate tie-up between Ford and Mazda, which began with a joint venture to make automatic transmissions back in 1969.
Soon after, Ford imported Mazda’s wee pickup truck and renamed it the Courier to get a toe-hold in the compact truck segment. When Mazda faltered after betting the farm on its Wankel rotary engine in the 1970s, Ford took on an equity stake in the Japanese company, then bought a majority share in 1996.
The two automakers swapped technology and models over the years to fill gaps in their lineups. The symbiotic relationship endured until the 2008-09 U.S. recession, which prompted Ford to sell assets to avoid bankruptcy, parting ways with Mazda after four decades of cooperation.
Two of their most successful joint products were the Ford Escape and corporate twin Mazda Tribute, which arrived in mid-2000 as 2001 models. These compact five-door sport utilities found favour with literally millions of buyers.
Features and powertrains
The Escape employed a unibody structure lifted from the Mazda 626 sedan, along with its fully independent suspension all around. Ford used two familiar engines: the 125-hp 2.0-litre Zetec four-cylinder out of the Contour, and the 3.0-litre Duratec V-6 from the Taurus, making 200 hp.
Front-wheel-drive was standard, with all-wheel drive optional. As in many car-based SUVs, power was dispatched automatically to the rear wheels when the computer detected slip. On loose surfaces, the drivetrain could be locked in a 50/50 split via an instrument panel switch, but there was no low range as in a true 4X4 system.
The Mazda Tribute had different styling cues, transmission shift points, steering gear and suspension settings to deliver a slightly zoomier driving experience.
These twins really shone inside, thanks to an early decision to make the Escape/Tribute wider than the rival Toyota RAV4 and Honda CR-V. Seating was comfortable and accommodating, especially the folding rear bench, which was broad enough for three adults. Headroom was generous, and the floor was minivan-flat to enhance legroom.
The Escape received a thorough update for 2005, with a larger Mazda-sourced 153-hp 2.3-litre four cylinder as the base engine, along with styling tweaks and additional safety features. The four-banger got an optional automatic for the first time, and the engine was stout enough to handle a hybrid conversion.
Modified to run on the Atkinson cycle (with late valve closing to reduce pumping losses), the Escape Hybrid inhaled less air and fuel, dropping output to 133 hp. The engine was supplemented by a 70 kW electric motor and a continuously variable transmission (CVT) that allowed the Escape to be driven solely on electric power at low speeds.
The electric motor drew its power from a 330-volt battery pack that lived under the cargo floor, charged through regenerative braking or via the gas engine. Ford made headlines by mating the hybrid power-train to an all-wheel-drive system, creating the world’s first hybrid SUV.
All Escapes earned an extensive facelift for 2008, including new-but-familiar sheet-metal and a renovated interior to address the previous low-budget, plastic appointments. The old mechanical underpinnings remained, including the archaic four-speed automatic transmission.
The ageing drive-trains got addressed in 2009, with the base four-cylinder up-sized to 2.5 litres to make 170 hp, while massages to the 3.0-litre V-6 yielded a welcome 240 hp. A new six-speed automatic transmission optimized performance, as well as fuel economy. Properly equipped, the Escape V-6 could tow 1587 kg (3,500 pounds).
Driving the Escape
In a major magazine road test of 11 compact SUVs in 2001, the Escape/Tribute twins shared a first-place win. Editors loved the V-6 power, commodious cabin and genuine tall SUV stance and view in a compact package.
The V-6 models could sprint to 97 km/h in 8.2 seconds, while the 2.0-litre four wheezed to the same threshold in 11 seconds. The Escape Hybrid was barely more energetic than its four-cylinder gasoline equivalent, taking 10.2 seconds to reach 97 km/h.
In a 2008 rematch, the Escape ranked seventh out of nine – demonstrating just how hotly contested the compact-SUV segment had become. Showing its age, the Escape stubbornly stuck with rear drum brakes while its rivals adopted four-wheel disc brakes.
Compared with newer competitors, the ride quality felt more truck-like than small utes are expected to exhibit. Although the Escape’s suspension could absorb large bumps without drama, minor road imperfections came through with annoying frequency.
Plenty of owners were disappointed with the Escape’s fuel consumption; even Hybrid drivers weren’t getting the government ratings. About the only people who seemed happy with their consumption were the handful that were driving manual-transmission models.
What do the owners say?
Many Escape/Tribute drivers are pleased with their rides; owners praised the tall-in-the-saddle views, spacious cabin and handsome styling. Some liked the reliability of the trucklet – some, but not all.
Most notably, the automatic transmission can present disconcerting problems, including clunking noises and hard shifts. There was a service bulletin on a leaking transmission cooler, but the issues are likely more deep-seated than that. Some have reported replacing valve bodies and solenoids.
“It's been in the shop nine times in four years for transmission issues. Now the trans is on the verge of complete failure,” one exasperated owner of a 2010 model posted online.
Another concern involves the electric power-steering system, which can work intermittently or fail outright without warning, sometimes at speed. Ford issued a recall on the steering torque sensor, but owners noted dealers won’t address total malfunctions under the recall.
The air conditioner has also been identified as a source of premature malfunction. Owners of recent examples (2010 and up) have reported rear windows exploding, often with no obvious cause.
There were faulty door and ignition locks, headlights that filled with condensation, a cacophony of squeaks and rattles, and broken power window regulators.
On the other hand, almost 1,000 Escape Hybrids that worked as cabs in the relentless traffic of New York City have reportedly held up well. The Hybrid may well be the best Escape to buy used.
2001-2012 Ford Escape (Mazda Tribute)
- Surprisingly roomy
- Great visibility all around
- Unique Hybrid model
- Busy ride
- Thirsty V-6
- Old-fashioned drum rear brakes
Watch out for:
- Hard-shifting transmission
- Malfunctioning air conditioner
- Intermittent power steering
- Exploding rear window
- Broken locks