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August 11, 2004

Review: 2004 Ford Escape 2.3L

It’s a fact that ninety-five percent of SUV owners haven’t even thought of going off-road.  They probably avoid the smallest of potholes and slow down to take the highway metal joint.  That said, the discussion of whether to have this or that all-wheel drive system is as important as what color of socks you should wear for the day.

All-wheel drive, in the urban setting, is nothing more than a bragging right.  A very expensive bragging right.  Imagine, aside from the drive train’s astronomical asking price, it lessens fuel economy by adding weight, and by sapping engine power since it’s distributed to all four wheels.  In the case of the Ford Escape, it can get pretty dangerous too.  The Control-Trac II system can get easily fooled: transferring too much power to the slipping wheel too late, causing a scary slide.

So praise the angels and saints that Ford has finally come up with the sensible front-driving Escape XLS.  Although there has always been a two-wheel drive version, it wasn’t desirable.  This is mainly because of the prehistoric 2.0-liter inline-4 that was as asthmatic as it was thirsty.  The Escape’s heavy body and unresponsive transmission made that fact even more obvious.

Of course, now that’s not the case anymore.  The new 2.3-liter Duratec inline-4 finally enables the Escape to gain some much needed sprinting legs.  The horsepower hike is impressive: 27 horsepower and 28 Nm more torque.

Off the line, the Escape is light on its feet, much like its bigger V6 brother.  Though still no drag racer, the XLS finally has the pace to keep up with most cars on the road.  It rarely needs a climb beyond 2,000 rpm for excellent overtaking thrust.  The new power plant also means that there’s a slight increase in fuel economy: 6.8 km/l in the city.  However, the hesitantly shifting transmission can still reek its ugly head every once in a while, especially when it comes to sudden downshifting requirements.

Like all other Escape models, the XLS feels absolutely solid, as if it were made from a solid piece of granite.  It goes through any obstacle or road rut with little difficulty.  Sudden shudders are rarely felt in the cabin.  Still, Ford engineers have managed to make the steering livelier than before with a quicker response feel and less dead center (you probably have to thank the absence of that horrible all-wheel drive system for that).

The ride and comfort, which has always been the Escape’s ace is still here.  Like before, the ride is somewhat on the firm side, but not too rough.  The seats also offer sublime support for all but the obese.  And that’s a shame.  Not because obesity is a growing problem, but the seats could have been made wider given the Escape’s large interior width.

That said little has changed with the XLS’s interior.  It still has the beige-tone interior and the same tweedy (note: old-looking) fabric seats.  The same CD player of old, with its relatively simple interface and excellent sound quality, is carried on in the 2004 model.  80’s nostalgia is guaranteed given that the CD player doesn’t display the minutes/seconds elapsed per track.

A notable change though is the column shifter.  Though not obvious to all but the keen, the 2004 model features one that’s shorter, giving more precise movements over the old clunky one.  Plus, it doesn’t tend to block the audio controls anymore.

Sadly, the air con is still as confusing and illogical as ever.  The fan speed is separate from the on/off switch making you think twice before turning which dial.  There’s no low fan speed on recirculate mode either—making the Escape’s interior an uncomfortable blizzard.  Though there’s a temperature knob, it’s overly sensitive that it becomes useless.  Twist a little to the left, the interior turns to the Artic; a little to the right and it is Africa.

It’s not perfect inside, but the Escape wins hands down on where it counts the most: utility value.  Aside from the large interior room, it has huge cubby holes and center console, six cup holders, a split-fold rear bench, and gigantic cargo/luggage room.  The Escape may not have the funkiest cabin, but think about it: would you care about dash-mounted drink coolers if you couldn’t even fit the family’s groceries into the cargo bay?

The disappearance of the four-cylinder XLT (all-wheel drive model), the XLS’s safety package has been rounded up, giving it an edge against the competition.  Aside from the dual airbags from before, the XLS now receives anti-lock brakes and electronic brakeforce distribution, putting it at par with Honda’s two-wheel drive CR-V.  However, despite the marked improvements, the XLS does suffer from a terribly spongy brake pedal.  Funny thing, since in the nth time behind the wheel of an Escape, it’s only in this version that has the problem (so much for best-in-class braking).

With such tremendous competition out there from Japanese and Koreans alike, the compact SUV is getting as mainstream as the compact sedan.  Although all compact SUVs were supposedly designed to fit the person with the ‘active lifestyle’, it has now become nothing more than a glorified boulevard cruiser.  At that, you won’t get the point if you spend just a weekend behind the wheel of the Ford Escape.  It doesn’t turn as much heads as say, the Toyota RAV4 or be as frugal and comfortable as the Honda CR-V.  Still, if long-term ownership proposition is being considered, the Ford Escape XLS ends up ultimately as a well-rounded package that’s worthy of a second look.

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