First Drive: 2013 Ford Escape (Photos)

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Photos: Ford

Ford is taking a huge risk with the all-new 2013 Escape. Why? They took the current Escape — one of the most successful vehicles in their lineup, the number one selling small SUV in North America with over 250,000 sold (over 2 million total since its inception) and a rabid fan base — and decided to tear it apart and rebuild it from the ground up. Like I said, huge risk.

So to prove they are not completely insane up there in Dearborn, Ford flew me out to San Francisco to see the brand new version, and be one of the first to let it loose on the twisting mountain roads in the bay area. An offer I couldn’t refuse. Plus I loved the irony of testing an Escape in the shadow of Alcatraz.

Click here to read about the “seeing” robots building the new Escape.

At the preview lunch, I sat with Eric Loeffler, Chief Engineer for Escape, and he told me the new version is “totally new, top to bottom. There are almost no same part numbers with the outgoing model.” He also told me the new Escape boasts some incredible new tech advancements, 11 of which are class exclusives for the segment, with 4 of them class firsts.

Tech and Gadgets

My favorite new gadget? The Hands-Free Tailgate. Working off the same motion detecting technology you’ll find in your favorite video games, there are sensors under the rear bumper. Walk up with your hands completely full and the key fob in your pocket, just kick your foot under the bumper, and it opens. No need to drop your stuff and wrestle for the keys or the release button. Taking groceries out of the car? Kick under the bumper again and the tailgate closes. It’s one of those they-shoulda-made-this-standard-years-ago features that’s not only cool to use, but essential.

No need for keys or buttons to lift the tailgate. Just kick.

There’s also an upgraded MyFord Touch system that responds to voice commands and connects with digital devices a lot easier, Active Park Assist that’ll parallel park the car for you, sensor-based BLIS® (Blind Spot Information System) with cross-traffic alert that sounds an alert when a vehicle is detected entering your blind spot or if traffic is detected approaching from the sides.

Also handy to have is the Curve Control that will automatically slow the vehicle when it’s cornering too fast, and Torque Vectoring Control to help you accelerate through a turn. Loeffler described it using a boat-turning analogy: When you’re turning a boat with twin engines, you slow the inside engine and give throttle to the outside engine, resulting in a quicker, sharper turn. By having sensors do the same to the wheels of the Escape, cornering becomes more responsive.

The newly redesigned driver cockpit

 

The Drive

You can put all the bells whistles on a car you want, but if it doesn’t perform during the ride, it’s all just window dressing. So I was anxious to get behind the wheel and see how it would handle the sharp vertical climbs and insidious twisties that our planned route had.

The new Escape is offered in a choice of three powertrains, all of which are 4-cylinder engines projected to deliver 30+ mpg:  The standard 2.5-liter with 168 hp, the 1.6-liter with EcoBoost that delivers 178 hp, and the top of the line 2.0-liter EcoBoost that’ll push 240 horses. I chose the 2.0.

My test car (Photo: Eric Rogell)

One of the things Loeffler told me was besides the emphasis on the sleek and dynamic new styling and tech toys, they wanted to build a small SUV that was actually fun and sporty to drive. And the second I dropped it into drive and pushed down on the throttle, I could tell they had done their job well.

This is one of those SUVs that drives and handles like a sports car. Ok, it may not take turns like a well-balanced sports car, but it’s a lot closer to that end of the spectrum than a top heavy, lumbering SUV. I doubt I would have taken some of the mountain road turns the way I did in any of those. And lived to tell about it.

The Escape also has plenty of passing power. Driving on the freeway, I was able to get to speed, and pass slower trucks with ease. (It’s pretty good at evasive maneuvering to, like when some idiot who missed his exit decides to cross three lanes of traffic, but that’s another story.)

For you boaters, the new Escape is also able to tow 3,500 pounds of cargo (with the 2.0-liter engine), a good bit more than its nearest competitor.

The Interior

Another part of the rebuild initiative was to be more focused on the driver, and give the interior a cockpit-like feel. The vehicle I tested was the top-line Titanium edition, and it comes with premium, partial-leather, heated front seats with additional lumbar support. They’re almost like racing seats, and deliver not only solid support in turns, but are, dare I say for an SUV, comfortable to sit in. The passengers will note there’s also more legroom for them, too.

The driver displays are bright, well placed and intuitive, but I did have trouble with the touchscreen (could be because we were testing early production models), and a couple of the other testers reported some issues with accessing playlists from iPods during their tests.

If you’ve ever felt “closed in” in a small SUV, the Escape has a panoramic vista sunroof that runs from front to back, complete with ambient lighting.

Panoramic vista roof

 

One of the things I noticed was a lot less road and wind noise from this version of the Escape. Ford’s been playing with some new technologies to keep the cabin quieter, and they are making a difference.

Overall

After more than 140 miles of mountain roads, city traffic and highway speeds, I can say that the new Escape is very, very fun to drive… and easy to drive for long periods of time. Which should be good news to those of you who use your vehicle as a taxi service, going from office to home to soccer practice to dance to home again. Or for those three hour drives up to the lake with the boat trailered behind you.

The new Escape starts at $23,295 (including destination and delivery), and that’s $200 less than the outgoing model yet it includes $1000 more standard stuff than previously. The Titanium edition I tested, that came with just about every available option, will run you just over $36,000.

(UPDATE: I just got word on the official EPA certification for the new Escape, and the 1.6-L EcoBoost engine is certified at 33 mpg highway. The other two powertrains were also certified at 30+ mpg.)

So will their huge risk pay off? We’ll see what happens when people ultimately vote with their wallets, but with the tech advances, the new sleeker styling, better fuel economy, and more responsive ride, for a lower price, I’m guessing the engineers responsible for the complete rebuild wont have to polish their resumes for a while.

The spare tire area comes with handy compartments to hold tools

 

Photo: Eric Rogell