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

With tech and specs, more is always better, right? Well, the 2013 Ford Escape SE is a good example of the old adage that less is more.

Antuan Goodwin

Antuan Goodwin

Reviews Editor / Cars

Antuan Goodwin gained his automotive knowledge the old fashioned way, by turning wrenches in a driveway and picking up speeding tickets. From drivetrain tech and performance to car audio installs and cabin tech, if it's on wheels, Antuan is knowledgeable.

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10 min read

Automakers have been talking for years about breathing new life into the internal combustion engine, promising big engine power from small, efficient engines through the magic of turbocharging. Ford's offered its large Flex, Explorer, and even the F-150 with smaller-than-average turbocharged engines with varying degrees of success. Some were good; others underwhelmed.


2014 Ford Escape SE

The Good

The <b>2014 Ford Escape SE</b>'s 1.6L EcoBoost engine behaves like a much larger power plant. The standard Sync AppLink technology puts dozens of smartphone apps for media and navigation under the driver's control with voice commands.

The Bad

During my testing Sync AppLink was a bit temperamental, at times not recognizing valid apps. All of the best safety tech options are up in the Titanium trim level.

The Bottom Line

The 2014 Ford Escape SE is a fantastic example of "less is more," making acceptable power with a tiny engine and offering exceptional tech in even its base configuration.

Enter the 2014 Ford Escape SE, a midsize crossover that's been mated with an engine no larger than that which you'd find under the hood of a Ford Fiesta. Sounds like a recipe for disaster, but surprisingly, with the magic of turbocharging, it's not.

The engine isn't the aspect of this SE model where Ford has delivered more from less. We also learned that when it comes to Ford infotainment tech, sometimes the simpler dashboard package is also the best way to go.

1.6-liter EcoBoost engine
Walking up to a vehicle as big as the Escape is and then getting in and driving around for a bit, you might not believe that the engine under the hood only displaces 1.6-liters. I know didn't believe, but it does.

The Escape SE's little engine makes its 178 horsepower and 184 pound-feet of torque with the aid of turbocharging and direct injection.

Under most around-town driving conditions, the 1.6-liter doesn't behave like a turbocharged engine, that's because Ford has done a remarkable job of tuning turbo lag out of the EcoBoost's delivery. The engine just feels like a larger displacement engine, the only hint that forced induction is at play is a slight whistle that can be heard when driving with the windows open.

Helping the engine to do its thing is the six-speed automatic transmission -- the only option available on the Escape -- which always seemed to be in the right gear. Downshifts for passing happened at logical times and upshifts were smooth. I liked that though the default shift program is economy oriented, it didn't hop in to too high a gear too soon, leaving the Escape outside of its power band.

The six-speed automatic gearbox is the only transmission offered for the 2014 Escape. Josh Miller/CNET

Drivers who want to drive a bit faster will be happy to learn that the Escape SE offers a manual shift program, but will be disappointed to see that the gears are selected with a rocker switch atop the shift lever, rather than with paddles or gates. Fortunately, the Escape offers a sport program that is a bit more aggressive with holding each gear higher into the power band -- where the turbo can deliver best power -- and downshifting more frequently for more responsive throttle pedal feel and slightly faster acceleration. This was the mode that I defaulted to for most of my driving.

A variant of this same engine will be found in the upcoming Ford Fiesta ST, but with output bumped to 197 horsepower and 202 pound-feet of torque. I can't wait to drive that little hot hatch, but I digress.

Escape owners who want more power have the option to step up to the Titanium trim level with its optional 2.0L EcoBoost engine, 240 horsepower, and 270 pound-feet of torque. While I'm always for more power, the 1.6L SE model feels like a good performance sweet spot for commuting, people moving, and grocery getting.

The 1.6L's slightly higher 23 city, 32 highway, and 26 combined mpg estimates for our front-wheel drive model also seem right on the money. I averaged about 24.8 mpg during our week of testing, which included quite a bit of idling during video and photo shoots and a bit of heavy-footed exploring of the performance envelope.

Trip computer/info display
Users can monitor the Escape's fuel economy via the LCD trip computer. Josh Miller/CNET

Speaking of the performance envelope, I was pleased with our front-drive Escape SE's handling. (An all-wheel-drive option is available, but not equipped.) The steering was responsive with good initial turn-in that makes the crossover feel pretty nimble at parking lot and city speed. Being based on the same platform as Ford's Focus, the Escape garners a lot to the same praise that's been heaped on the compact -- a controlled ride that's not too mushy, predictable amounts of grip, and a general feeling of responsive handling that automakers like to call "European tuned" in their marketing materials.

Only in the larger, elevated Escape the element of sportiness is slightly dulled. Very slightly, I feel I should emphasize. There's no beating the laws of physics, but Ford's engineers have done a good job making the Escape feel more carlike and accessible than ever. However, I did notice that the Escape feels noticeably less planted at highway speeds than its smaller platform-mate. Over rough and cracked asphalt, I could feel the vehicle seemingly moving around beneath me and twitching about, requiring lots of small corrections and concentration.

That said, the Escape wasn't as twitchy as, say, the Mazda CX-5, and certainly not as swayed by crosswinds on the freeway. On roads with a bit more space to move around in within the lane -- unlike San Francisco's sometimes cramped local highways -- drivers may not even notice the slight twitchiness, but I feel it bears mentioning.

App integration powered by Sync
We usually get cars loaded up with all of the tech packages: The last time we tested an Escape, it came loaded up with MyFord Touch and all sorts of bells and whistles. The SE trim level that arrived in the Car Tech garage came without all of that, so we were able to interact with Ford's basic level of Sync with AppLink, which is in some ways superior to the fully loaded setup.

Mobile Apps on Sync
When paired with a smartphone, Ford Sync gives drivers voice-controlled access to mobile apps. Josh Miller/CNET

I did my testing with an Android phone over Bluetooth connection, but the operation and results should be similar with a USB connected iPhone.

Ford Sync AppLink boasts well over 22 compatible apps just for Android and about as many for iOS. These apps add functionality such as navigation, audio playback and streaming, news broadcasts, and more to the Escape's dashboard.

Generally speaking, AppLink setup should be as simple as installing the compatible app on your phone, pairing your phone with the vehicle, and then issuing voice commands via Sync. If, for example, Pandora is installed on your phone, you should be able to just say, "Mobile apps" and then "Pandora" to begin streaming your custom stations from the internet via the app. You should also be able to request your custom stations by saying, for example, "Listen to Michael Jackson Radio" or rate songs by saying "thumbs up" or "thumbs down."

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
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
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
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

2014 Ford Escape SE

Score Breakdown

Cabin tech 8Performance tech 7Design 6


See full specs Trim levels SEAvailable Engine GasBody style SUV