2020 Ford Escape first drive: This small SUV has big appeal

Small crossover-SUVs have grown to be the automotive industry's most important segment. And while the Ford Escape was one of the original entries into this segment, the current, third-generation model has grown a bit stale.

Thankfully, relief is on the way in the form of the 2020 Ford Escape. Redone from the ground up, the fourth-generation Escape sports a new look, the latest technology, efficient drivetrains and an improved chassis. The small segment may be more crowded than ever these days -- can this 2020 Escape climb its way back to the top of the class?

Sleeker and more functional

The most noticeable change to the 2020 Escape is the new design: This SUV is lower, wider and longer than its predecessor. It's far from a groundbreaking look, but it's clean and inoffensive with a touch of character. Up front, Ford says the grille borrows inspiration from the Mustang, which I'm not really sure I see, while the tapering roofline gives it a sleeker and more aerodynamic stance than before.

Speaking of aero, the new Escape is the slipperiest one to date thanks to a number of items that improve airflow around the SUV. In addition to the sleek roof, the Escape gets active grille shutters, underbody shielding and aero-optimized wheels. Even the taillights are specifically shaped to better cut through the air.

Inside, the Escape is spacious. Front seat room is generous, and the back seats can slide fore and aft, better accommodating taller passengers. The cabin's layout is intuitive, with large, clearly marked climate controls. Everything is built from nice materials -- the Escape's cabin feels as good as any other compact crossover. In my Titanium test car, build quality is exceptional, with nary a creek or rattle heard throughout a day of testing near Louisville, Kentucky.

It's a functional environment, too, with sizable door panel pockets, center console cubbies and a large glovebox providing ample space to stash all manner of things. When you need to haul cargo, there's 33.5 to 37.5 cubic feet of real estate at your disposal, depending on the position of the rear seats. That's respectable room, but falls behind the CR-V's 39.2 cubic feet and is incredibly close to the RAV4's 37.6 cubic feet. Folding the second row down unlocks a serviceable 65.4 cubic feet in the Escape, but again, it trails the competition from Honda (75.8 cubic feet) and Toyota (69.8 cubic feet).

More tech than ever

The Escape's tech story is substantial. In all but the base S model, you'll find Ford's tried-and-true Sync 3 infotainment system with an 8-inch touchscreen. Sync offers navigation, a Wi-Fi hotspot for up to 10 devices, Apple CarPlay, Android Auto, Amazon Alexa and Waze integration.

On the range-topping Titanium trim, a great sounding 10-speaker B&O audio setup is in charge of tunes. And it also gets a fancy 12.8-inch digital instrument cluster, offering different design themes for each drive mode. The default Normal look has a mellow blue appearance, while Sport wears a more aggressive black-and-red theme.

Any handheld tech devices brought into the Escape shouldn't go dead, either. In the Titanium, front-seat passengers have access to USB-A and USB-C ports, a 12-volt outlet and an optional wireless charge pad. Folks in rear have a single, three-prong plug at their disposal that's great for bigger items like laptops, but having an additional USB or two on the back of the center console would be nice.

For safety, forward collision warning with automatic emergency braking, blind-spot monitoring, lane-departure warning with lane-keep assist, post-collision braking and auto high beams are standard on all Escapes. Adaptive cruise control with stop-and-go functionality, active parking assist and a head-up display are offered as options.

Every Escape except the base S gets this 8-inch Sync 3 infotainment system.

Nate Reed/Roadshow

Performance strides

Escape customers have four powertrain options to choose from, including two hybrid offerings that you can read about later this week. For now, I'll tell you about the 2020 Escape's gas-only lineup, which starts with a new, 1.5-liter, turbocharged I3 churning out 181 horsepower and 190 pound-feet of torque. The engine features cylinder deactivation, allowing it to run on two cylinders to improve fuel efficiency, returning an EPA-estimated 27 miles per gallon in the city and 33 mpg on the highway -- with front-wheel drive, anyway. Ratings drop slightly with all-wheel drive, to 26 mpg city and 31 mpg highway.

I only had a brief, 15-minute stint around the city in a 1.5-liter-equipped car, but my early impressions are that midrange pull is adequate, though that follows noticeable lag at throttle tip in. More time will be needed later on before passing final judgment on what is expected to be the Escape's volume powerplant.

The majority of my drive was spent with the 2.0-liter, turbocharged I4, which is available on SEL and Titanium trims. It gets 250 horsepower and 280 pound-feet to the ground through a standard all-wheel drive system, and has ample power for merging onto the highway and passing slow-moving cars. There are no turbo lag issues, the 2.0T pulls hard throughout the rev range and enables the Escape to tow up to 3,500 pounds. As for fuel economy, this more powerful engine comes at a slight disadvantage to its 1.5T counterpart, with EPA-estimated ratings of 23 mpg city and 31 mpg highway.

Both gas engines work with a new eight-speed automatic transmission that rips off mostly smooth, but not the quickest shifts. I say mostly smooth because the gearbox can occasionally get caught up between shifts, occasionally resulting in rough behavior.

Ford says the Escape's face takes inspiration from the Mustang. I don't really see it, but the styling is certainly sharp.

Nate Reed/Roadshow

Dynamically, the new Escape has a lighter and stiffer chassis, lower center of gravity and retuned suspension, all of which make it better to drive than before. Punching up Sport mode adds weight to the steering, for semi-brisk turn-in, controlled body roll and admirable grip in corners on the 225/55-series tires and 19-inch wheels. Without question, the Escape is an engaging crossover to drive, but I wish steering was more responsive off center. Overall, while Ford has made great strides in the Escape's on-road vibe, it can't quite match the solid dynamics of the Honda CR-V or Mazda CX-5.

The most impressive part of the new Escape is its commuting performance. Leaving the car in Normal mode lightens the steering, and the forgiving suspension does a fantastic job smoothing out the bumps I encounter on the country roads outside Louisville. Combine the comfortable ride quality with the incredibly quiet cabin, and the Escape is the sort of small SUV you could easily drive everyday.

A great Escape

The 2020 Ford Escape begins at $24,885, not including $1,195 for destination, for a base front-wheel drive S model. Adding all-wheel drive to the 1.5-liter turbo I3 tacks on an additional $1,500 to the bottom line. Those who want to spoil themselves with the full-zoot Titanium will have to pony up $33,400 to start.

When it rolls into Ford dealers this month, the new Escape will compete with a gaggle of solid competitors. On top of the aforementioned CR-V, CX-5 and RAV4, there's the Chevrolet Equinox, GMC Terrain, Hyundai Tucson, Jeep Compass, Kia Sportage, Mitsubishi Outlander Sport, Nissan Rogue, Subaru Forester and Volkswagen Tiguan to contend with. That's some seriously stiff competition, but with its well-built cabin, strong tech game and excellent ride comfort, the Escape makes a strong argument for being a top contender in this class.

The brand-new Escape is one solid SUV.

Nate Reed/Roadshow

Editors' note: The horsepower and torque figures presented in the accompanying video are inaccurate. Ford's initial data was incorrect at the time of filming. The numbers listed in the article text are correct.

Travel costs related to this feature were covered by the manufacturer. This is common in the auto industry, as it's far more economical to ship journalists to cars than to ship cars to journalists. While Roadshow accepts multiday vehicle loans from manufacturers in order to provide scored editorial reviews, all scored vehicle reviews are completed on our turf and on our terms.

The judgments and opinions of Roadshow's editorial team are our own and we do not accept paid editorial content. 

Discuss 2020 Ford Escape