When I took delivery last week of a much-anticipated contender in the mini-SUV category, the Ford Escape, I just knew it would be a huge hit with my wife and teenage daughters. It was painted in that chromium yellow extrovert color that's such a rage at the moment. It had this rounded, tailored exterior, which was tastefully two-tone with gray plastic underpanels. I liked the looks right off the bat, so I knew they'd rave over it.
After all, it's the female "demo"—especially the teen and college set—that's made such a phenom out of these micro sport/utes. Toyota got the ball rolling years ago with the RAV4 based on its Corolla econobox. Then Honda showed up with its Civic-based CR-V. Chevy has Tracker; Suzuki has Vitara; Isuzu has Amigo; Nissan has Xterra.
For once, Ford, truck maven that it is, arrived late to the party. Never fear: The Ford Escape is here—in tandem, it must be said, with Mazda's forthcoming Tribute. Both are based on a shared platform that trace a sinuous pedigree back through the Mazda 626 sedans and the Ford Probe/Mazda MX6 coupes.
So I was surprised when I picked up my eldest child at volleyball practice, and she greeted my arrival...with nothing. No "Wow!" No "Cool!" No nothing.
Just the day before, virtually the entire volleyball team had swarmed the Nissan Xterra I was testing. Like Kubrick's jittery simians eyeing the monolith in 2001: A Space Odyssey, they touched the Xterra everywhere with skittish reverence. "Uhmagod, no way!" they chirped. "An Xterra. This is so cool! Uhmagod." But the very next day, they scarcely noticed the Escape. If it had been a hologram, they'd have walked right through it.
I'm simply bamboozled. If you're pulling for the underdog—as I'm prone to do—you're bound to be sympathetic with the company-saving sales success of Nissan's down-'n'-dirty Xterra. It's a rugged looking, brute feeling, cabbed-over pickup truck whose premium price still hasn't shortened waiting lines at dealerships—the 2WD Xterra SE I drove cost $23,398 as tested; a 4WD version would cost $2000 more.
2001 Ford Escape Interior
By contrast, Ford's all-new Escape starts at $17,645 for a 130-horsepower XLS model in 2WD. The higher-end XLT model I drove starts at $19,195; after adding a 200-horse V-6 ($1480), switchable Control Trac II AWD/4WD system ($1625), and leather-and-power everything, my sticker bloated to $24,070. Despite similar pricing, size, and power, the Ford is more sophisticated on purely technical grounds. But so far at least, it seems to lack the X-factor. I have to wonder if a new Ford Xcape might not make a better, if ungrammatical, impact in the language of Uhmagod.
In a very real sense, this new mini-SUV represents Ford's own escape from the truck-based sport-utility mainstream. It rides, handles, negotiates traffic and parking lots like a small, maneuverable car. It's only fair, moreover, to rank Escape Jr. —the one with the smaller 2.0-liter twin-cam motor—with Toyota's 127-hp RAV4 and Honda's 146-hp CR-V. In this company, the lesser-powered Escape is much the larger and arguably more versatile vehicle. But what to make of the 200-hp V-6 model that bests Xterra's own 3.3-liter V-6 by 30 horsepower? With deluxe XLT trim and other goodies including in-dash six-CD changer ($585), moonroof ($585), and leather package ($870), Escape Sr. spoils occupants with its power, gentle ride, and cozy creature comforts.
Somehow, Escape has managed to straddle a gulf that separates dainty SUV minis from brawny, hell-bent trail busters. But it's an awkward stretch, as my own experience confirmed. Tracking through soy and millet fields in search of an out-of-the-way duck blind, I had absolutely no trouble following tractor trails. The rear coil springs groaned grumpily from time to time, but that didn't matter. Yet when it came time to traverse a small, steeply angled stream ford, the Escape scraped each bank with disheartening crunches. Fortunately, there was no lasting damage, but the rear plastic bumper cowling required delicate repositioning, and the unarmored front undercarriage scooped up so much mud that it looked like a two-year-old with peanut butter smeared on its teeth.
price: $18,160; as tested,
The simple fact is that Escape, with its 7.8 inches of ground clearance, just isn't cut out for the really rough stuff that Xterra's 9.2-inch stance takes right in stride. And while we're all tired of hearing that the average SUV owner only heads off-road three percent of the time, the Xterra's rough-around-the-edges styling and well-hyped off-road image seem to have monopolized 100 percent of the teenage attention span in my admittedly unscientific head-to-head comparison test.
So it remains to be seen into what niche Ford's new Escape will find itself. From the utility standpoint, its largest-in-class cargo area (65 cu ft with rear seats folded) and 3500-lb tow rating (with the V-6) seem to justify a bid for the King of the Minis title. But it's a utility best left to city streets and well-graded gravel roads. And while road feel is comfortable for an SUV, the Escape's ride and handling simply do not offer the performance flair or luxury smoothness of road-tuned sedans or coupes.
In one regard, however, the arrival of the Escape is crucial. Now Ford offers the widest variety of sport-utility vehicles under one roof. Between the bookends of Ford's gargantuan Excursion at one end and its compact Escape at the other, there lie the Explorer and Expedition SUVs as well as an oddball sport-utility truck, the Sport Trac. Arriving last on the scene, Escape is still too new for one to judge whether it represents a culminating ambition for Ford's line of SUVs or a diminishing return.