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Review: Four-cylinder Ford Escape strikes the right tone

The 2013 Escape will offer only four-cylinder engines. Can such engines really match customers' power expectations? Yes.
The 2013 Escape will offer only four-cylinder engines. Can such engines really match customers' power expectations? Yes.Ford

We’ve seen this movie before: Stagnant economy. Soaring gas prices. Government-mandated increases in fuel economy that doom the big vehicles Americans prefer.

In the 1970s, automakers responded to those conditions with that they called “downsizing.” Cars became cheaply made, cramped and slow. For some reason, consumers weren’t thrilled with these new models. The quick-and-dirty solution was to bolt a turbocharger onto their wheezing, underperforming four-cylinder engines with the promise of hot performance and good fuel economy.  Sailors have made more reliable promises to girls in foreign ports.

The technology was immature and the result was unreliable: short-lived engines with poor dynamic driving qualities. Ford was one of the culprits, with turbocharged four-cylinder engines offered in models like the Mustang and Thunderbird, which were traditionally powered by V8s.

But that was a long time ago.  In response to pricey gas and more stringent federal fuel economy standards, Ford is rolling out a family of smaller turbocharged engines to replace bigger, thirstier ones.  And this time, Ford got it right.

While the V6 engine option was popular in the outgoing Escape compact SUV, the 2013 Escape will offer only four-cylinder engines.  Can such engines really match customers’ power expectations? Yes they can. Especially when they are the turbocharged EcoBoost engines that Ford offers as an upgrade from the base engine.

The base engine is an update of 168-horsepower, 2.5-liter four-cylinder seen in the outgoing model and it is a good one for budget-conscious drivers, with 22 mpg city and 31 mpg highway.  But things start to get more interesting with the next step in the lineup, with a 178-hp turbocharger EcoBoost 1.6-liter four-cylinder.

That's an incredibly small engine to expect to move a 3,500-plus pound SUV, but thanks to modern turbocharger technology it makes both the peak power and the low-speed torque to move the Escape with good hustle.  It has marginally better horsepower, torque and fuel economy than the base engine, a combination that makes it an appealing upgrade.  The EcoBoost 1.6 offers the maximum fuel economy among the Escape’s engines, with 23 mpg city and 33 mpg highway.

A lot of buyers liked their V6 engines, though. What are they to do? The 240-hp 2.0-liter EcoBoost four-cylinder is the answer for them. Ford did extra homework on this engine, giving drivers more power than the old model’s V6 with fuel economy nearly equal to that of the base engine, at 23 mpg city and 30 mpg highway.

But just as importantly, Ford engineers sweated the detailed needed to make the EcoBoost 2.0 smooth and quiet enough to serve as a legitimate substitute for a V6. This is the area where carmakers will see the most resistance from customers, because V6 and V8 engines are smooth and quiet, with a refined exhaust note.  Four-cylinders are inherently raucous, challenging engineers to find ways to tame their obnoxious nature if upmarket customers are to accept them.

Ford has achieved that with the 2.0 EcoBoost.  The 1.6 EcoBoost targets a customer with a sportier mindset who might want to hear the engine a little bit, so it is louder, but the 2.0-liter is thoroughly muffled.

That quietness is indicative of the 2013 Escape’s overall refinement. Like the Ford Focus compact car on which it is based, the Escape is a notch above its competitors, providing a rich feeling driving experience. Unlike the Focus, the Escape enjoys a proper automatic transmission, with six gears and slick shifts, so the Escape won’t chase away potential buyers with an irritating, rough-driving automated manual transmission posing as an automatic.

The Escape’s cabin is opulently detailed, and even the entry-level models have pleasant soft-touch surfaces. The thick-rimmed steering wheel connects to excellent steering that provides superb feedback. The Mazda CX-5 is the Escape’s only equal dynamically, and the Escape has less road and wind noise inside for a more placid passenger space.

Like other new Fords, the Escape boasts an improved version of the annoying-to-use Sync voice command system and MyFord Touch touch-screen infotainment systems. The latest iteration is less of a pain in the, er, neck to use but still falls short of the simplicity and convenience of properly designed knobs and switches. At this point MyFord Touch remains an exercise in technology for technology’s sake, so we look forward to the next upgrade. We’d still opt for the conventional radio and climate controls.

But here’s a tiny electronic detail they got right: the turn signal. Seems simple enough, but in recent years Ford and other carmakers have decided that it would be better for the control stalk to return to center, even when you’ve activated the turn signal. For the Escape they’ve gone back to having the stalk remain in the raised or lowered position if the turn signal is on, letting you know it is still on and making turning it off simple. When the stalk is already in the middle, how do you cancel a turn signal?

Other electronic gimmicks: a tailgate that opens and closes remotely by kicking your foot under the rear in the manner of an old straight-ahead field goal kicker (props to Redskins kicker Mark Mosley, 1982 NFL MVP, the last straight-ahead kicker and the only kicker ever named MVP!).  And electronic grille shutters that block airflow to the radiator at highway speeds to trim aerodynamic drag and boost fuel economy.

The “U” in SUV does stand for “Utility” and Ford added that in the Escape by stretching the vehicle’s wheelbase and adding most of that newfound space to the rear seat for more passenger legroom. The cargo area is also larger for that ubiquitous “stuff” people cite when explaining their need for an SUV rather than a sedan.

The Escape marks our third consecutive compact SUV review, as this hotly contested segment turns over this year. That’s because compact SUVs are second only to sedans in popularity, and the two groups account for 60 percent of new car sales.

With impressive innovations like EcoBoost providing an excellent combination of power and frugality, it is easy to see why these vehicles are attracting a large following.

2013 Ford Escape

  • Base price: $23,295 (including $825 delivery)
  • Price as tested: $26,875 (including $825 delivery)
  • EPA fuel economy: 23 city, 33 highway
  • Pros: Slippery styling, zippy handling, bank-vault solidity
  • Cons: MyFord Touch infotainment hassles, and, um, that’s about it
  • Verdict: The best compact SUV in the mainstream segment, with the handling of the Mazda CX-5 and the quietness of premium-segment models.
  • Standard equipment: 2.5-liter 168-hp four-cylinder engine, six-speed automatic transmission, power steering, AM/FM/CD six-speaker stereo, battery saver feature
  • Major options: 1.6-liter 178-hp EcoBoost engine, Sync voice control, Sirius satellite radio, fog lamps, SecuriCode keyless entry
  • Safety equipment: electronic stability control , antilock brakes, brake assist, dual-stage front airbags, side airbags, driver’s knee airbag, tire pressure monitoring