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Major changes to chassis and sheet metal used to signal a new generation of a particular model, but Ford's 2017 Escape feels like a whole new car with just engine and tech changes. Much of its structure carries over from the previous model year, but redesigns for grille and interior, engine upgrades, driver assistance systems and new connected technology adds up to more than a simple refreshed model.
Let's start in the engine bay. Last year's base 2.5-liter naturally-aspirated engine and the 2.0-liter turbocharged Ecoboost engines persist. The larger engine is good for 168 horsepower and 170 pound-feet of torque. The 2.0-liter turbo gets a 5 horsepower boost, to 275, and a 5 pound-feet torque boost, to 245. Those are pretty big numbers for a small SUV, and something to consider if you frequently fill all the seats, carry cargo and pull a trailer.
In the middle is the new 1.5-liter Ecoboost option: a tiny, turbocharged four-cylinder engine mated to a six-speed automatic transmission in either front-wheel drive or on-demand all-wheel drive configurations. Even for a small SUV, that's a pint-size power plant, but with 179 boosted horsepower and 177 pound-feet of torque, it's just a tad more powerful than Ford's and the Toyota RAV-4's 2.5-liter engines.
You'd think that downsizing the engine would net fuel efficiency gains; and it does...sort of. At 24 combined mpg (22 mpg city, 28 mpg highway) for the all-wheel drive example that I tested, sure, the 1.5-liter Ecoboost the most efficient Escape model in Ford's the lineup, but only just barely. Mazda's CX-5, the Toyota RAV4 and the Honda CR-V all best it across the board with their naturally-aspirated, 2.5-liter, AWD configurations.
In its favor, the smaller Ecoboost engine is a pretty good powertrain, delivering decent performance around town and on the highway. It's amazing how, after a few miles behind the wheel, the novelty of the small engine wore off quickly and I was able to just appreciate its solid, lag-free power delivery.
To help save fuel, Ford implements idle-stop on the new Escape, which shuts down the engine at stop lights. When editor Wayne Cunningham tested the Escape earlier this year, his highest praise for this feature was that he didn't even register it happening, as the car quietly brought the engine back to life when he lifted a foot from the brake.
During an extended, light off-roading session at California's Hollister State Vehicular Recreation Area, I was also able to appreciate the engine's ability to smoothly deliver consistent torque and the all-wheel drive system's eagerness to shuffle power from front to rear to pull the Escape over rough terrain and up some genuinely steep inclines lined with loose sand.
The 7.8-inch ground clearance kept me from scraping the undercarriage over larger bumps, and the independent suspension did a fairly good job handing basic off-road duties; however, the Escape never really felt at home. My SE model's $1,295 Sport Appearance package 19-inch wheels and street-oriented tires probably didn't help much in the dirt.
A sport mode for the transmission and paddle shifter helped with on-road performance, allowing me to bypass some of the six-speed automatic transmission's tendency to find itself in too tall a gear, but ultimately this is neither a sports car or a true off-roader, so I found myself grateful and impressed by the Escape's modest abilities in either of these areas.
My example also came equipped with a SE Technology Package, a $1,395 suite that bundles in Ford's new Sync 3 infotainment system with apps, along with some rudimentary safety tech.
Sync 3 is a pretty good get for the Escape. I'd say it's a must-have option that's streets ahead of the old MyFord Touch setup. The built-in interface is quick to respond to inputs, like typing an address without stopping between each letter press, and the visuals are crisply rendered. The onboard navigation (a $795 option on top of Sync 3) also works well with features like traffic data and voice commands that don't suck.
Beyond that, Sync 3 integrates with a host of smartphone apps (about a half-dozen for Android or iOS devices including Spotify, iHeart, Pandora and Glympse), features connectivity with Android Auto and Apple CarPlay that further boosts the list of compatible apps and now features new Sync Connect 4G/LTE connectivity for telematics functions like remote vehicle unlock, location and monitoring.
If I've one complaint with this Sync 3 system, it's with the physical implementation of the touchscreen. Ford tucks the 8-inch screen so deeply into the dashboard that it both appears smaller than it is and can be difficult to reach, particularly the row of shortcut soft keys that appears along the bottom of the screen. On the whole, I was pretty unimpressed with the dashboard's design and materials, which primarily consists of a weird rubbery material that is starting to look a bit dated.
My Escape's equipped driver aid tech was limited to blind-spot monitoring, a reversing camera and rear proximity sensors -- all part of the aforementioned Technology Package. However, there are more intriguing options on the menu.
The most desirable box to check for drivers who intend to park this small SUV in tight, urban environments is Ford's Active Park assist. At the touch of a button, this semi-autonomous parallel and reverse perpendicular parking system can scan for a parking spot as the vehicle moves along the road and notify the driver when a properly sized space is found. After the driver stops and shifts into reverse, the system can then autonomously steer the vehicle into the space while the driver retains control of the gas and brake pedals. And for really tight parallel parking spots, Active Park assist also has a 'park-out' feature that can automatically steer the vehicle out of the spot, returning control to the driver when the vehicle is clear.
A nice byproduct of the Active Park assist system's enhanced suite of sensors is that the low-speed proximity detection system's coverage is expanded to also cover the front bumper and the sides of the car, which is useful when making tight turns in, for example, crowded parking garages.
The Escape can also be had with adaptive cruise control that maintains a driver-set speed on the highway, but can automatically reduce its speed to keep a safe following distance behind a leading vehicle. Checking this box also rolls in the autonomous emergency braking system, which will alert the driver if a forward collision is imminent and can automatically apply the brakes to prevent or reduce the severity of an impact.
Rounding out the list of available premium driver aid technologies are lane-keeping alert, lane-departure intervention and driver-alertness monitoring systems.
For those who don't need AWD, but do need to pinch pennies, the 2017 Ford Escape S with the 2.5-liter engine starts at a reasonable $23,600.
I think the SE with the 1.5-liter engine is the sweet spot in the lineup. It's better equipped, has more available options and can be had in either front- or all-wheel drive. $25,100 gets the SE started before an $895 destination charge. With a $1,795 premium for all-wheel drive, $495 for a power rear liftgate and the Tech, navigation and Sport Appearance options mentioned earlier, we're looking at $31,725 as tested. I'd skip the appearance package -- which I think cheapens the appearance with black plastic trim -- and keep the price as close to $30k as possible.
Were this my personal 30-thousand-ish dollars, I'd be very seriously considering the 2016 Mazda CX-5. The Mazda is much more fun to drive, has slight price tag and fuel economy advantages and can be had with a manual transmission. In Ford's favor, Sync 3 is simply better in every way than MazdaConnect and the Escape has more interior volume for people and cargo. (Both vehicles are on the small side of this class.) Plus, while I love the idea of "the driver's car of small SUVs" most buyers in this segment probably aren't.
Check all of the boxes on a top-trim Escape Titanium with the most powerful engine, all the tech that matters and upgraded cabin materials and amenities, and the price climbs just above $38,000. That's fairly pricey for this class, but Ford crams in a lot of features for the money.