Four-dollar-per-gallon gasoline may be wreaking havoc on sales of the Mustang, F-150 and Explorer, but it comes along at a convenient moment for the facelifted 2009 Escape and Mariner. Six-speed automatics replace four-speed automatics, there's a new lower front chin spoiler below the redesigned front fascia and rear tire spoilers for better aerodynamics, and new low rolling resistance 16-inch Michelin tires across the board. The old 153-horsepower 2.3-liter four has been bored and stroked (among other upgrades) to a 171-horsepower 2.5-liter, and the 3.0-liter V-6 gets new cylinder heads, injectors, intake and exhaust cams, manifolds and pistons, and a compression ratio bump from 10.0:1 to 10.3:1.

So now the V-6 actually has a V-6-like horsepower number, up 40 ponies to 240. Both engines get intelligent variable valve timing. The hybrid gets the new 2.5-liter, too, and for '09 runs on the Atkinson cycle. It has a new engine processor and a new powertrain damping system, to cut vibrations and feedback.Ford anticipates EPA mileage will be up 1-mpg city, 1-mpg highway, whether you get the four, the V-6 or the hybrid. The biggest change, though, is that you no longer have to buy one of the bottom-feeder trim levels to get four-cylinder fuel economy. The 2.5 is available all the way up to the Escape Limited and Mercury Mariner Premier versions. Small engines are big now, even with buyers who can afford more. Ford even removed the "V-6" badge from so-equipped '09 models as if it has become a badge of extravagance and disregard for the environment and global oil supply.

That makes the extra 18 horses for the four-banger the most important improvement. The 171-horse Escape isn't a rocket. It's simply an adequate engine in a smallish crossover, the right vehicle for those who like to ride higher than in cars, carry a few things and manage 21/27 mpg (FWD) or 20/25 (AWD), assuming the EPA backs up Ford on its estimates. Ford says about 45 percent of buyers choose four-cylinder models, virtually unchanged since the first Escape launched as a '01 model. Now that the new four is close to the fours in the Honda CR-V and Toyota RAV4 for refinement, and packs in five extra horses, the "take rate" ought to zoom well past the V-6.

Added refinement comes with the new four, producing better engine noise. It's still a raspy sounding four under full-throttle acceleration, but it's fairly smooth under most conditions. The six-speed automatic (a five-speed manual remains standard with the four) smoothens the power delivery, and there's none of the hunting for gears of the old 2.3-liter/four-speed auto combo. Acceleration matches the '08's 200-horsepower V-6/four-speed auto combination, at 10.4 seconds for 0-60 mph, Ford says.

The extra 40 horses in the V-6 made necessary by the more powerful new four cuts 0-60 mph times by 1.7 seconds, according to the manufacturer. Ford also has revised the suspension, including the addition of a rear anti-roll bar for all models, making the "2009 Ford Escape, Mercury Mariner more fun to drive." Well, no. It's not fun to drive. It's a crossover sport/utility vehicle. But it's more refined and quieter at speed. And by the way, Ford claims the lower-front air dam saves 3/4-mpg at 70 mph. The low rolling resistance tires makes the steering feel lighter at low speeds. Suspension is stable and reasonably comfortable over crusty roads. As for "fun to drive," you don't want to take any CUV this tall too deeply into the curves, anyway. This one is no exception.