First drive: The 2020 Ford Escape you want is the Hybrid

September 17, 2019

The 2020 Ford Escape may look like one compact crossover SUV, but like the English language, it’s really three different things wearing one trenchcoat.

The 2020 Escape comes with a choice of four trim levels, three engines, two transmissions, and a choice of front- or all-wheel drive. Variety’s great, until it’s confusing: Among all those choices Ford will sell you a turbo-3 Escape with all-wheel drive, a front-wheel-drive Escape Hybrid, or an all-wheel-drive turbo-4 Escape Titanium with all the trimmings. The test-drive pressure is real. 

Which one should you choose? We drove the 2020 Escape in and around Louisville, Kentucky, and came away with a pecking order of favorites—with an unexpected winner. 

Here’s how we ranked the 2020 Escape after our first drives, with an asterisk.

2020 Ford Escape

2020 Ford Escape

The penny-pincher: 2020 Ford Escape SE

If you like spending less money on better things, you may be tempted by the base 2020 Ford Escape S, especially if you want to stay within a reasonable monthly payment or loan term. That’s difficult to do now that the average transaction price for a new car hovers in the high $30,000s. For $26,080, the 2020 Escape S comes with some critical features including automatic emergency braking and power features. 

What it doesn’t have: All-wheel drive, a touchscreen interface, or Apple CarPlay/Android Auto compatibility. In those ways it’s the lesser car when compared with either the $25,505 2020 Subaru Forester or the $25,545 2019 Honda CR-V LX. 

Pass the base car and opt for the $28,290 Escape SE, and those missing features appear along with a power driver seat and satellite radio. The SE is the car we think most shoppers will choose, and it’s the model on which we based the 2020 Escape’s rating of 6.8 out of 10. It has all the hallmarks of this new Escape, from very Mazda-like body curves to light and direct steering to a well composed ride. It’s powered by Ford’s new 180-horsepower turbo-3, which means acceleration is more measured, and some interior trim looks inexpensive compared to rivals, but this Escape has adult-sized back-seat space (with a sliding second-row bench) and excellent standard safety equipment. It’s no longer truly inexpensive—but which compact SUV is?

2020 Ford Escape

2020 Ford Escape

The spendy sportback: 2020 Ford Escape Titanium turbo-4

The best version of the previous Ford Escape stuffed a powerful turbo-4 under its hatchback-like hood for muscular power to match its tenacious grip. The turbo-4 is back for 2020, and it’s a little less expensive, but it’s been demoted to second rank by a new arrival.

Ford makes the 250-horsepower turbo-4 available in SEL and Titanium Escapes. On the former it costs $2,285 with standard all-wheel drive; on the latter it replaces the hybrid powertrain and tags another $2,885 to the sticker. At its least expensive, the turbo-4 Escape costs $32,735, a few hundred dollars less than a 2019 Escape with a similar engine—but the 2020 version comes in SEL, not Titanium trim.

It also comes with better ride that softens the last Escape’s needle-like handling. Longer, wider, with more suspension travel and with better all-season tires, the new Escape outpoints the old car with its more fluid and more controlled ride. There’s more compliance, but more lean into corners, too, and steering feel has relaxed noticeably. The previous Escape admittedly pushed the boundaries of what exactly makes a crossover SUV versus a high-bodied, great-handling hatchback; the new Escape clears that air and comes down on the side of comfort.

Drop all common sense, and it’s easy to configure a turbo-4 2020 Escape beyond $40,000. That’s hardly the point of a compact crossover vehicle—and at that price we can name a half-dozen vehicles that deliver stronger performance or better luxury feel. Keep it lean in the low-$30,000 range, and the most powerful Escape delivers. 

It’s not the best Escape, though.

2020 Ford Escape

2020 Ford Escape

The all-arounder: 2020 Ford Escape SE Sport hybrid

The 2020 Escape marks the return of a Hybrid model to the Escape family, and for now it's the best of the trio. Offered in either SE Sport or Titanium trim, the gas-electric powertrain melds a 2.5-liter inline-4 with a 1.1-kwh lithium-ion battery pack and an electric motor. A power-split transmission that acts like a continuously variable automatic transmission (CVT) pushes that power to the front or to all four wheels. It's good for 200 hp net.

The powertrain benefits from active noise cancellation and lots of sound deadening that other versions don't get, but it still sometimes draws attention to what's most different about the Hybrid's performance. Its drivetrain puts a bigger burden on the battery via its unique transmission—and as a result, it can feel like it's operated by remote, with strong battery propulsion augmented by a gas engine that switches on and off, seemingly out of sync with pedal effort.

It’s responsive in the way that matters most for fuel economy, without starving the Hybrid of good road manners. The steering's quite good, ride quality is maybe even better thanks to the additional weight of the battery, and the Hybrid drivetrain's 'L' mode adds more regeneration that can be tapped into duty on winding Kentucky roads for meaningful gas-mileage gains. We saw upwards of 41 mpg indicated on the Hybrid’s tripometer, and will be eager to see if Ford gets the EPA's nod for 40 mpg combined or more, as they estimate.

The Escape Hybrid may be outpointed by the plug-in version due in the spring. The same car gains an upsized 14.4-kwh lithium-ion battery for an electric-only drive range of about 30 miles, and will come with drive modes that will allow drivers to conserve that range for use in neighborhoods and cities. It'll be more expensive, of course, but it will also qualify for regional and federal tax incentives due to its battery capacity.

For now, the 2020 Escape SE Sport hybrid nails a sweet spot of equipment and pricing. The $29,450 SE Sport Hybrid gets a power tailgate, navigation, a panoramic roof, and adaptive cruise control—and it can be trimmed up to Titanium grade for a few thousand more dollars.

It’s a power play for a more efficient Ford fleet. At that price and at its expected EPA ratings, the 2020 Escape will draw more people into a high-economy hatchback—and that will help Ford offset fuel economy of the thousands of Navigators and Super Duty pickups they sell that bring in billions. It’s the smart pick in the 2020 Escape family—for now, at least.

Ford paid for travel and lodging to Louisville so that we could bring you our first-drive impressions.

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