Four-dollar-per-gallon gasoline may be wreaking havoc on sales of the F-150 and Explorer, but it comes along at a convenient moment for the facelifted 2009 Ford Escape. Six-speed automatics replace four-speed automatics, there are new low-rolling-resistance 16-inch Michelin tires across the board, and a new lower front chin spoiler (below the redesigned front fascia) and rear-tire spoilers improve aerodynamics. 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 VVT. The hybrid gets the new 2.5-liter, too, and for 2009 it 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-liter is now 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. 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). Ford says about 45 percent of buyers choose four-cylinder models, virtually unchanged since the first Escape launched as a 2001 model.

Added refinement comes with the new four, producing better engine noise. It's still a raspy-sounding four at full-throttle acceleration, but it's fairly smooth under most other conditions. The six-speed automatic (a five-speed manual remains standard with the four) smoothes 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 2008's 200-horsepower V-6/four-speed auto combination, at 10.4 seconds for 0-60 mph.

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. Additionally, the low-rolling-resistance tires make the steering feel lighter at low speeds. The suspension is stable and reasonably comfortable over crusty roads.

With the new 2.5-liter in the hybrid, 0-60 acceleration is 0.1-second quicker than the gas-only four (10.3 seconds). Which begs the question, why not make more than 25,000 hybrids per year? Ford says it already has plans to increase hybrid production by adding the 2.5-liter/Atkinson cycle system in the Ford Fusion and Mercury Milan sedans later this year. So don't expect to see more CUV hybrids from Ford on the road next year. Regardless, we did find the new hybrid system is more seamless between electric and gas modes and has made transition from electric regenerative braking to traditional braking more seamless, as well.

Should you buy one or recommend it to people you like? If the Escape is the type of transportation appliance you need, it belongs on a consideration list along with the Toyota RAV4 and Honda CR-V. Look for pricing to start with base model manual four-bangers around $20,000, with the most expensive hybrid model nearing $30,000.


2009 Ford Escape
Base price $19,750
Layout Front engine, FWD/AWD, 4-door, 5-pass SUV
Engine 2.5L/171-hp/171-lb-ft I-4, DOHC, 4 valves/cyl
Opt engines 3.0-liter/240-hp/223-lb-ft V-6, DOHC, 4 valves/cyl; 2.5L/153-hp/136-lb-ft I-4, DOHC, 4 valves/cyl, plus Atkinson cycle hybrid system, 94-hp AC synchronous motor
Transmissions 5-spd manual (I-4); 6-spd automatic (I-4 or V-6); CVT (hybrid only)
Wheelbase, in 103.1
Length x width x height, in 174.7 x 71.1 x 70.0
Curb weight, lb 3300-3850 (mfr est)
GVWR, lb 4500
Payload capacity, lb 1000
Max towing capacity, lb 3500
0-60 mph, sec 8.7 sec (V-6, mfr est)
EPA city/hwy fuel econ, mpg 18-34/23-30 (mfr est)
CO2 emissions, lb/mile 0.60-0.97 (est)
On sale Currently