Ford upgraded and updated all the powertrains in the Escape back in 2009, and it's been more of the same ever since--not a bad thing in the case of the Hybrid model, and in truth just fine with the four- and six-cylinder models too.
Neither of the Escape's gas-only powertrains will win awards for smoothness or innovation, but they're serviceable pieces. The four-cylinder is plenty more smooth than Ford's last stab at a frugal Escape; the 3.0-liter V-6 saw output rise by some 40 hp, though it's quite a bit noisier than Ford's larger 3.5-liter six.
Both can be mated to a six-speed automatic transmission, while the four-cylinder model comes standard with a five-speed manual gearbox. With the 171-horspower four-cylinder on board, the Escape struggles to hit 60 mph in about nine seconds, if we're splitting the difference between Ford's conservative estimates and those from the enthusiast mags. The manual transmission isn't particularly pleasing to row, according to some reviewers; we've been unable to track down a test vehicle in this configuration.
Upping the stakes considerably, the V-6 engine puts out 240 horsepower and sets about its task with a lot more enthusiasm. It's not particularly quiet or smooth, but the six-cylinder teams up well with the new six-speed automatic transmission and its quick, clean gear changes. The six-speed automatic also is an option with the four-cylinder engine.
Handling isn't the Escape's best feature. Steering has improved, since its hydraulics have been swapped out for electric motors, and the ride quality is decent on most highway surfaces, though it gets exponentially harsher and noisier as the road condition falters. Ride height and ground clearance make the Escape drive taller than newer competitors like the Hyundai Tucson, and significant doses of body roll interrupt any aggressive cornering moves. Since its running gear dates back to 2001, it's not difficult to see why the Escape isn't quite up to handling par, some ten model years later.
The Escape Hybrid's powertrain combines the four-cylinder engine, batteries and electric motors to deliver much higher fuel economy than any of the other models. It's a swell integration of electronics, electrics and software--just as in the Fusion Hybrid, the Escape Hybrid doesn't have as much of the digital feel in its steering, nor any lurching in its powertrain when the gas engine joins in with the battery power. It can run only on electric power up to about 25 mph, and with that in mind and the energy-consumption screen dialed up on its dash, getting the Escape into its highest state of efficiency can become an interesting driving game, for the true geeks among us.