Ford Escape
By D.N.

The Escape is built on an all-new platform shared with corporate-cousin Mazda. The unibody design is fitted with four-wheel independent suspension that helps give the Escape a carlike ride.

Seats, switchgear, and feel are pure Dearborn. White-face gauges are a nice touch, as are the generous leg- and headroom. While the Escape doesn't have the latest SUV fad of a third-row seat, its cargo area is large and well shaped, with the (reclining in XLT) rear seatbacks folding flat once the headrests are removed. Flip-up rear-hatch glass is a handy touch, as are dual grab handles for both driver and front passenger, while the cabin air filter helps freshen the interior.

Two engines are offered: base 2.0L DOHC Zetec I-4 generating 127 hp and the 3.0L/201-hp DOHC Duratec V-6 (which we tested). The V-6 is strong but a little buzzy at higher rpm, yet with the Class II Trailer Towing Package, the Escape can pull 3500 lb. On twisty roads, it exhibits some body lean and understeer, but mid-corner corrections are easy. The brakes have a linear feel and turned in the shortest stopping distance from 60 mph in our group (125 ft). Wind noise at speed is apparent at the mirrors and A-pillars, but the excellent sound system helped cover it. As we previously mentioned, the shifter handle gave our testers fits, with most trying to get out of park using the wiper stalk. But once in gear, the transmission works well, with the overdrive-defeat button on the end of the shift column being a useful feature.

Order the XLT option and four-wheel ABS is standard, as are foglamps and 15-in. aluminum wheels. Our test vehicle was loaded with the items most buyers want, yet the price was only $25,165. The Escape drips value, and buyers will be quick to realize this. If Ford can hold the price to this aggressive level, the assembly lines will be humming.