The redesigned 2020 Ford Escape comes to market this fall at a time when compact SUVs have become sales darlings that move in big numbers.
With high stakes in dealer showrooms and an onslaught of fresh competition from Subaru, Toyota, and Volkswagen, among many others, Ford pulled out the stops to create a pleasantly rounded fourth-generation Escape that brings enough smart features and model configurations to satisfy a variety of buyers.
The new Escape is slightly longer, wider, and lower than the outgoing model and has a lower beltline that allows for larger windows and excellent outward visibility. The expansive greenhouse combined with the plunging nose can give this Ford the look of a swollen hatchback on stilts, yet the overall design is hardly offensive. More important, Ford says the new model is about 200 pounds lighter than before, largely thanks to the use of more high-strength steel in its structure, which helped lend a general easiness and sense of agility to the examples we drove through the rolling hills of Kentucky.
Pick Your Player
Multiple trim levels (S, SE, hybrid-only SE Sport, SEL, and Titanium) along with four powertrains—two gasoline engines, a hybrid, and a plug-in hybrid that will launch in the spring—make for a wide array to choose from. Front-wheel drive is standard on all but the all-wheel-drive-only nonhybrid Titanium; all-wheel drive is a $1500 option on all other trim levels. We spent only a few miles at around-town speeds with the Escape’s base powerplant, a turbocharged 1.5-liter inline-three-cylinder, but its 181 horsepower and 190 lb-ft of torque came on quickly and relatively smoothly, seeming fully adequate for getting this compact ute up to a moderate pace. Which is a good thing, considering it is the only mill to be had on S and SE trim levels. There’s a throaty warble to the triple’s engine note under load that could only come from an inline-three. Our one complaint was some faint boominess inside the cabin when the cylinder-deactivation system occasionally kicked in and idled one of the cylinders.
Far more compelling is the upgrade turbocharged 2.0-liter inline-four, which only is available on the Titanium and the all-wheel-drive SEL, for $2285. The more powerful 2.0-liter develops its 250 horses and 280 lb-ft of torque with a quiet purr and allows the Escape to mingle easily with traffic and overtake on the highway. While not exactly exhilarating in outright performance, throttle response is quite good, and its overall refinement should make Honda CR-V and Toyota RAV4 drivers envious. There’s no word yet on if Ford plans to introduce a zestier ST variant using the platform-sharing Lincoln Corsair’s 280-hp 2.3-liter turbo four, but we’d be surprised if Ford didn’t capitalize on the opportunity to make the Escape into the only semi-high-performance player among nonluxury compact utes. Opting for the 2.0-liter unlocks the Ford’s maximum towing capacity of 3500 pounds; models with the 1.5-liter are limited to 2000 pounds, and the hybrids can tug only 1500.
Both gas engines are paired with an eight-speed automatic transmission that, aside from some low-speed stutters when pulling to a stop, shifts quickly and unobtrusively, adding to the Escape’s smooth character. All trim levels feature five drive modes selectable via a console button (Normal, Eco, Sport, Slippery, and Snow/Sand), which mainly work to adjust the response of the engine and transmission. On models equipped with the optional 12.3-inch digital gauge cluster, changing the modes triggers a vibrant and distracting animation that temporarily consumes virtually the entire instrument display. That annoyance aside, the Sport setting made the greatest difference to the Escape’s road behavior, allowing it to rev a touch more eagerly and hold gears longer, although the eight-speed still remains a bit lazy on downshifts for spirited driving. The new Escape’s EPA fuel-economy numbers jump by a dramatic 3 to 4 mpg for the 1.5T and 2.0T powertrains; the hybrid’s figures haven’t yet been finalized, but should be approaching 40 mpg.
Quiet, Capable, and Spacious
Regardless of which model you choose, all Escapes drive with competence, refinement, and cushy ride quality, thanks in part to an isolated rear subframe that’s attached to the chassis with bushings; the outgoing model’s is solidly mounted. Most of our time was spent in versions fitted with the optional 19-inch wheels, but 17s and 18s also are available. The brake pedal in both gas and hybrid models is reassuringly firm and easy to modulate; the electrically assisted steering is dull in feedback yet welcomingly precise; and body control from the strut front and multilink rear suspension is well-managed around corners for something this compliantly sprung. The Mazda CX-5 has no chance of being dethroned as the driver’s choice in this segment, but the Ford strikes a commendable balance of comfort and capability, and it is calmingly quiet inside.
The other major takeaway of the Escape’s redesign is improved interior space. Ford notes that at least four full-size golf bags can fit behind the Escape’s split-folding rear seats, which now slide fore and aft on a six-inch track and also recline. Cargo capacity of 34 cubic feet in conventional models (hybrids lose three cubes in accommodating their batteries) matches that of the previous Escape, but slide the seats all the way forward, and it grows to 38 cubic feet, which is nearly as much as the capacious Honda CR-V. Even in the rear seats, six-footers can’t complain about personal space, although it’s easy to take issue with the Escape’s hard-plastic door panels, sizeable gaps between the dash and door plastics, and generally uninspired material finishes, even in the top-spec Titanium.
Ford’s steering-wheel controls and driver-information menus still are more cryptic than we’d like, but overall ergonomics are decent, and the optional 8.0-inch central touchscreen infotainment system is highly intuitive and loaded with connectivity options (Ford says additional power outlets and a wireless device-charging pad will be added after launch). Titanium models also feature an optional 6.0-inch head-up display that flips out of the top of the dash, rather than a more conventional setup that projects an image directly onto the windshield. But we didn’t find it that useful, given its proximity to the much larger digital gauge cluster.
Along with an amply adjustable seating position with generous sightlines, drivers also will appreciate the Escape’s standard Ford Co-Pilot360 suite of active safety tech, including the effectiveness of its lane-centering system on the highway, as well as its optional adaptive cruise control, evasive-steering assist functions, and updated self-parking abilities. With an entry point only $880 higher, at $26,080, and fully loaded models topping $40K, the fourth-gen Ford Escape’s price range is as expansive as the rest of its attributes. While only additional miles and a visit to the test track will reveal its rank in this ultracompetitive segment, there’s no doubt that Ford comprehensively improved its top-selling SUV.