2014 Ford Escape SE review: Ford crossover rewards restraint with value

However, every now and then, Sync just wouldn't recognize and app as installed, particularly if you have a lot of compatible apps installed on your host phone. For example. after installing Kaliki Audio Newstand, iHeart Radio, Scout, and NPR News, Sync stopped recognizing Amazon MP3 as a valid installed app. Upon exiting and re-entering the vehicle, Sync began to recognize Amazon, but seemed to forget that iHeart and NPR were installed on my phone. To be fair, it's possible that my phone is as much to blame for this communication error as the Sync system -- perhaps completely -- but I'm reporting my experiences.

Sometimes the lack of visual feedback required a bit more mental processing than I'm used to. For example, the way the Scout navigation worked in tandem with the Sync system's built-in turn-by-turn guidance engine had me scratching my head until I got a trip or two beneath my belt. Here's how it works and where my the confusion happened.

When you fire the Premium version of the Scout app up via the Sync voice commands, "Mobile apps, Scout," you're greeted by onscreen text that indicates that you're ready to start giving the app voice commands. From here, you can access your saved locations, get traffic updates, or just initiate turn-by-turn directions by say something like "Drive home." The app will think for a bit and then report that it has downloaded directions and that you're now free to use your phone. What it won't do is start giving turn-by-turn directions. After a bit of fiddling with the system while parked (safety first) I got annoyed and just drove away, without the directions.

Sync and Scout, Drive and Discover
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Sync and Scout work pretty well for navigation, but the voice prompts could use some clarification. Antuan Goodwin/CNET

Suddenly, the Ford Sync system started giving me turn-by-turn navigation with little onscreen turn prompts and arrows.

Here's what I learned was actually happening behind the scenes. When you ask Sync and Scout to get directions home, the app pulls your GPS location and your home address and plots a route home. But instead of proceeding to give you the directions, it uploads the route to the internal memory of the Escape's Sync system and then goes back into standby. When you start driving, Sync keeps track of your GPS location and reads the directions when you approach the preprogrammed turns.

The advantage of this method is that you can use the Sync AppLink connection -- which can only communicate with one app at a time -- to listen to music while navigating, for example. This I like, it's actually a very clever use of the technology in the vehicle to get around the limitations of the Bluetooth connection. The disadvantages are that if you get off of course, Sync will have to stop what it's doing to temporarily reconnect to the Scout app, which is the brains of the whole navigation experience. There's also the slight confusion that dealing with two systems can cause on those first few trips. I'd like to see better explanation to the driver from either Scout or Ford in this respect. Perhaps if the system said, "Begin driving for guidance" instead of "You can now use your phone," I wouldn't have been as confused about what to do next.

Learning curve aside, I liked that even drivers who don't opt to drop a bunch of money on amenities can still get reasonably good navigation, access to their favorite digital audio, and customizable news apps with the basic cabin tech setup.

The rest of the tech
Even if you're not app-crazy, the basic Ford Sync infotainment system packs a pretty good level of tech and digital audio sources.

Standard features include Bluetooth hands-free calling with Sync's great voice command that allows users to speak contacts' names to initiate calls. On phones that support Bluetooth MAP, Sync can read incoming text messages aloud. Meanwhile Bluetooth A2DP allows stereo audio to be streamed from connected devices. During my testing, I noticed that the Sync system didn't seem to support metadata such as song titles when streaming, which is odd for such a tech-forward setup.

Other audio sources include CD playback, USB/iPod connectivity, a 3.5mm analog auxiliary input for external devices, and AM/FM radio. The SiriusXM Satellite Radio tuner has a neat time shift feature that allows users to temporarily pause live broadcasts. So the driver can pause, for example, the news or a sports event to run into a store and pick up where he or she left off when returning to the car.

Escape dashboard
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The physical controls are complex. We preferred to use Sync's voice commands. Josh Miller/CNET

Like the app integration, all areas of the Sync system have a heavy emphasis on voice command, which is good because the dashboard is a mess with buttons. Users can tap a steering wheel button to tune to a satellite or terrestrial radio station, play an artist's music, or an album stored on a connected iPod, among other options.

Safety tech is pretty much limited to the standard rear-view camera that makes use of the tiny 4.3-inch dashboard screen that comes standard with the Sync system. This color display overlays distance and trajectory markers onto the video feed to help estimate how far obstructions are and where the vehicle will end up while reversing, but for more advanced safety features, such as blind-spot monitoring, rear cross-traffic alert, or automated parallel parking, you'll have to step up to the Titanium trim level and its plethora of tech packages.

In sum
When choosing cars, the knee-jerk reaction is to get the most. More is better, right? Well, the 2013 Ford Escape SE is a good example of the old adage that less is more.

The basic Sync with AppLink infotainment system is arguably better in many ways and less distracting than the MyFord Touch tech package that is optional at this trim level, despite having less screen real estate to work with. The 1.6-liter EcoBoost engine offers less power than the optional 2.0-liter EcoBoost, but still offers acceptable amounts of power and performance for what I believe are most drivers' needs; the Escape SE is no slouch despite the lack of displacement. And it comes at a good price: $25,550 plus $895 in destination charges to get out of the door as equipped for our review at $26,445.

2014 Ford Escape SE
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The 2014 SE trim level is a sweet spot in the Escape's lineup with good value and performance. Josh Miller/CNET

At that price, it compares favorably with the 2013 Mazda CX-5 Touring -- though for my money, the Mazda is probably a better buy. The CX-5's TomTom-powered tech offering at this price point is just a hair better than the at times temperamental Ford AppLink and, for what it's worth, its handling is a bit more dynamic.

If you simply can't help yourself, you can add MyFord Touch, navigation, a panoramic moonroof, a power liftgate, premium audio, and all-wheel drive either a la carte or as parts of packages. If you've got an extra $10k burning a hole in your pocket, there's also the fully loaded, tech-laden Escape Titanium to tempt you with its hands-free tailgate and automatic parallel parking wizardry.

Tech specs
Model 2014 Ford Escape
Power train 1.6-liter Ecoboost four-cylinder, turbocharged, gasoline direct injection, FWD, six-speed automatic transmission
EPA fuel economy 23 city, 32 highway, and 26 combined mpg
Observed fuel economy 24.8 mpg
Navigation Optional
Bluetooth phone support Yes, with voice command and audio streaming
Disc player Single-slot CD
MP3 player support Standard analog 3.5mm auxiliary input, USB/iPod connection, Bluetooth audio streaming
Other digital audio SiriusXM Satellite Radio with time shift
Audio system Six-speaker basic audio
Driver aids Standard rear camera
Base price $25,550
Price as tested $26,445

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