2005 Ford Escape XLT Sport 4WD cont...

When the asphalt gives way to aggregate not coalesced by sticky tar, the little Ford becomes something of a scrambling Escape artist, avoiding pitfalls at least two of the others regularly stumbled into. When we'd occasionally encounter a debris field of rocks pretending to be a road ("Gee, there's a line here on the map..."), the Ford felt eager to press on when its rivals seemed inclined to lie back, tabulating the pros and cons of the situation. Of the rest, only the Hyundai even approached the Ford's rock-climber mentality.

As an aside, the undercarriages of our four test vehicles recorded a sort of unintended scorecard of their relations with the planet's crust, noting each encounter, scrape by painful scrape. On hands and knees, we'd occasionally inspect these records, and, surprisingly, the Escape's was consistently scratchless. Luck? No such thing.

In the rear, the cargo bay stands apart from the others for its sheer, back-to-basics simplicity. Whereas the aft quarters of the GM vehicles are busy with overthought folding plastic storage aids and parcel organizers you have to assemble, arrange, or otherwise tinker with, the Ford has just flat carpet. What a novel idea: You can put stuff in there and arrange it as you'd like. Also, when the rear seatbacks are folded, the extended floor lies perfectly flat, ideal for sliding multiple boxes into the back without lumps in the floor snagging them.

At a base price of $26,030, our Escape XLT Sport 4WD came standard with the V-6 engine, but also included an optional power moonroof ($585), added front side airbags ($425), and a leather comfort group ($575) that wrapped the steering wheel and seating surfaces.

Climb atop those seats, and you'll discover that the view through the big windshield is airily uncluttered, framed only by two welcome grab handles on the A-pillars. But the dash design below it led to arguments. Some felt it was elementally purposeful; how a manly-man's sport/ute interior ought to look. Others, more secure with such issues, thought it dull as toast and dotted with low-ball buttons and knobs. An example of the Ford's more utilitarian taste is the front-passenger airbag's unadorned fitment into the dash molding. You could fit a quarter's edge into the gap outlining it. In the other vehicles, this passenger bag is integrated so well it's almost hard to find. And, um, this is the Escape's new-for-2005 dash.

The touch-up job done to the nose, like that to the dash, is subtle (a line here, a bevel there); the biggest difference is the welcome addition of crisp-looking reflector headlights replacing the Escape's previously foggy-eyed sealed-beam trace.

Park the rectilinear Escape and lanky new Equinox next to each other, and they could be designed a decade apart. Dearborn's SUV design DNA has been replicated maybe a bit too often, making the Excursion, Explorer, and Escape look almost like the same vehicle, just at different distances away. However, there's something friendly, approachable, and genuine about this iconic SUV appearance that Americans evidently resonate with--and are continuing to buy in droves.