At just 16 years old, the Ford Escape is one of the younger nameplates in the Ford family. The Taurus, F-series, Focus, and, of course, Mustang all are older. Yet the Escape sells in greater numbers than any Ford save the F-150 pickup (and sometimes the Fusion sedan), thanks to the market shift to crossovers and smart strategizing by Dearborn’s product planners. With the segment expected to continue growing over the next several years, Ford has made some key changes to the Escape for its 2017 mid-cycle refresh, aiming to broaden its appeal and stay current in one of autodom’s most competitive segments.
Looks a Hex of a Lot Better
It sure looks better, at least up front. A prominent hexagonal upper grille and stern headlamps replace the previous model’s trapezoidal underbite-ish grille and blob-like lights, moving the look closer to those of the next-size-up 2016 Edge and the rest of the Ford SUV range. Fog lamps set into their own hexagons occupy the lower corners of the fascia, flanking an air intake that feeds the intercooler on Ecoboost models. Turbocharged Escapes also feature active upper-grille shutters to streamline airflow at highway speeds. Tacky-looking front fender vents, unfortunately, survived the redesign.
Out back, the liftgate appears wider and the taillamps have a blockier shape. A new Sport Appearance package dresses it all up with black 19-inch wheels and mirror caps, smoked lamp bezels, and darkened grille insets. Inside, the package includes more-supportive seats upholstered in cloth and leather with white stitching.
Every Escape boasts ergonomic enhancements highlighted by a relocated shifter and new electronic parking brake; together, these free up some real estate for redesigned cupholders and new cubbies designed to hold phones and other day-to-day detritus. The redesigned steering wheel both feels good and looks better, while the center armrest is more comfortable and accommodates more stuff beneath it. On SE and Titanium models with automatic climate control, new switches make it easier to adjust that system.
Perhaps best of all, the latest Sync 3 infotainment system—which debuted for 2016—offers a vastly more sensible, intuitive, and quick-reacting interface, including a pinch-to-zoom map feature on the 8.0-inch touchscreen and improved voice recognition. Further reducing one’s need to remember anything is the new FordPass with Sync Connect app, which helps owners locate the car in a parking lot, check fuel and fluid levels, start the engine, pre-heat or -cool the cabin, find a local dealer, and communicate with a service advisor via voice, text, or email.
Ford brought no base S models to our drive, so we have no impressions of its carryover, naturally aspirated 2.5-liter four-cylinder. We found plenty to like, however, with the 179-hp 1.5-liter turbocharged four-cylinder that comes standard on SE and Titanium models, which replaces the former 1.6-liter turbo. Extremely quiet and smooth, the 1.5 accelerates to freeway speeds with acceptable gusto, even with three adults aboard. Nice as it is, though, we’d happily spend another $1295 to put the heavily revised 2.0-liter twin-scroll turbo four under the hood. With output increased to 245 horsepower and 275 lb-ft of torque—from 240 hp and 270 lb-ft in the pre-refresh model—the gutsiest Escape’s more authoritative acceleration comes with a mere 1-mpg penalty in the EPA’s combined fuel-economy rating compared with the 1.5.
Both engines are equipped with auto stop-start systems, which we’ve often found so annoying that we turn it off in other vehicles. In this case, though, it’s nearly imperceptible in both applications, so while you can deactivate it, few will feel the need. Also imperceptible in operation is the Escape’s “Intelligent 4WD” system (a $1750 add-on to either turbo engine) that can send 100 percent of the torque to either axle. Spying a rather steep and deeply rutted dirt trail near one of our photo spots, we summoned the bravery to trek some distance into the off-road yonder, and to our surprise (and relief) the Escape handled the trail without complaint. That’s probably farther “off-road” than most crossovers ever venture, but the ability is there for those who’ve ticked the right option box.
Tidy in the Twisties, But Don’t Get Crazy
Back on twisty two-lane roads, each Escape model we drove turned with precision and predictability, but the steering felt unnaturally rubbery the more we turned the wheel, as if it were being self-centered by a Bowflex. While preferable to steering systems you can turn with one finger that deliver no feedback, this constant, springlike pressure discouraged enthusiastic driving. Ford asserted that the new Escape’s steering is “best in class,” but we wondered if they’d driven the Mazda CX-5 before making that statement. If so, their shot went wide of the target. That said, the Escape’s body motions are managed as well as one would expect—that is, it’s a generally tidy handler but prone to understeer, with plenty of tire squeal to warn the driver against indulging any exuberance.
The Escape is clearly happiest around town or in steady-state freeway driving, where the ride quality is excellent, even when equipped with the Sport Appearance package’s 19-inch wheels and tires. We also tested some of the Escape’s available electronic driving aids, including its lane-keeping system that warns of lane departure via a steering-wheel vibration; if the driver chooses, it can be programmed to supplement that warning with gentle steering input to bring the vehicle back toward the middle of the lane. Also newly available is active cruise control, which offers driver-selectable following distances.
The 2017 Ford Escape arrives at dealerships in May. The entry-level S model, available only with front-wheel drive, starts at the advertising-friendly price of $24,495, but we imagine few customers outside of fleets will stop there, as the SE brings more equipment, the turbo 1.5-liter engine, paddle shifters, and 1-to-2-mpg better fuel economy for just $25,995. Load up a Titanium model with all available goodies and the sticker brushes up against $40,000. That’s a lot of money for an Escape, but the lower-priced models represent strong values in the segment. With the compact-crossover segment still expanding, this easier-to-use, easy-to-drive, and easier-to-look-at Escape likely will remain the company’s bestselling non-pickup for years to come.