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2001 Ford Escape 4x4 XLT

It's a heck of a time to buy a sport utility vehicle: just when you save up enough dough, the price of gas shoots through the roof.

It's a heck of a time to buy a sport utility vehicle: just when you save up enough dough, the price of gas shoots through the roof.

Soon there will be a better idea — a smaller SUV with better fuel economy, but one that can really do stuff.

Like a summer vacation away from the city, the 2001 Ford Escape is a welcome breath of fresh air in a crowded, polluted streetscape.

I was surprised at the number of people who approached me while I was driving the new Escape around town. It has a Ford familiarity to its overall look and is like many other SUVs.

But the conservative styling is fresh enough to turn heads. A lot of people wanted to talk about it.

That happens occasionally to me; I am driving new trucks all the time.

It happens more frequently with hot new vehicles, such as the Chrysler PT Cruiser.

People were not overexcited about the Escape, but they seemed to know about it.

This is an SUV that is a logical choice. It is as light and nimble as a small "sportcute" and boasts corresponding fuel economy.

Its four-wheel drive system is automatic for simple operation, can operate on pavement in all modes for reliable use by any driver, and has a lockup feature for improved grip in slippery

conditions.

With the optional 200-horse V6, it has power and torque to launch itself smartly and get up to highway speeds quickly.

The power is still present as the four-speed automatic transmission kicks down for passing.

The vehicle handles towing, too. The V6/automatic combination has a factory trailer towing package that includes four-pin wiring and a class II hitch.

That is good for 1,588 kg or a runabout boat or small travel trailer.

The standard 130-horse, four-cylinder engine is expected to return overall fuel economy of 9.4 L/100 km. The inline-four model comes with a five-speed manual transmission, while the

optional V6 is mated to a four-speed automatic. You can get the Escape as a front-wheel drive or four-wheel drive (4×4) model.

The 4×4 is an on-demand, all-wheel drive system that can switch from front-wheel drive to four-wheel drive as the driver requires.

This provides good fuel economy with additional grip when the front wheels slip. The operation is so fast and quiet that the driver does not even know it has taken effect.

These automatic systems attract criticism; that no matter how fast they react, their action is still a reaction to wheels slipping.

This vehicle has a switch which locks the drive system in a fixed four-wheel drive mode — perfect for when you know you are about to go up a snowy hill or drive down the flooded dirt road

on the way to the cottage.

The Escape's cold weather development was conducted in Thompson, Man.

HIGHS

*Efficient space and economy

*V6 power

*Automatic, lockable AWD

LOWS

*Middle rearseat safety equipment

*Outside mirror adjustment

*Driver's seat

In this testing, the vehicle is scrutinized to see how it performs when it ingests snow, to see how it starts when the engine is cold, how it accelerates, brakes and handles on snow and ice.

Unlike most SUVs based on a truck frame, the Escape has a unitized body.

So it is lighter in weight and handles more as a car would.

It is nimble and easy to park. U-turns do not require the driver to go over curbs, even though the vehicle can handle this.

Close examination reveals bumpers and lower body cladding that closely integrated with the grille and body panels, which flow together smoothly despite the upright overall look typical of a

sport-ute.

The Escape supplies a commanding view of the road from the driver's seat.

This is a bit short in its lower cushion for my legs, which are slightly longer than average.

You can see out of the vehicle easily and the gauges are simple to read.

The electrically powered right rearview mirror does not adjust as well as I would like.

The controls are right at hand, including a stalk on the right of the steering wheel for the wipers.

I kept hitting this and turning on the wipers as I reached for the transmission lever mounted on the steering column.

The centre stack includes an optional, six-disc CD player that swallows disc after disc, then plays whichever one you want.

The centre console between the two front seats has a huge storage bin under its arm rest. Comfort is almost better in the back.

The wide body pays off there. Foot room is better than average. The floor is surprisingly flat. The seat backrests of the 60-40 split bench reclines.

Safety for the middle passenger is limited to a manually adjusted, two-point seat belt, instead of an automatically retracting three-point design.

There are two rear seat headrests, but no middle one.

The cargo area is large enough. You can gain access to it through the rear window which flips up, so the whole tailgate does not have to be lifted open for small items.

A netted storage bin, hooks and cargo net make putting things away easy and secure.

They can be completely covered by the roll-out cover that has two mounting positions to accommodate the reclining rear seats.

Notable standard equipment includes air conditioning. Notable optional equipment includes antilock brakes. ABS is included with the upscale XLT models.

Side air bags for the front seats are also available.

For 2003, the Escape will debut a hybrid gasoline-electric drive-line.

Unless something startling happens in the interim, this will be the first hybrid electric sportutility vehicle.

Fuel consumption is expected to be just 6 L/100 km.

Although it has a small four-cylinder engine, the hybrid will boast acceleration that matches the V6, thanks to the inherently high torque of the electric motor.

Emissions, of course, will be exceptionally low.

Hybrid electric vehicles address a problem that can be acute in the Canadian market.

The distance an electric vehicle can travel is limited and gets shorter in lower temperatures.

As a hybrid electric vehicle (HEV), the Escape HEV will have a driving range of more than 800 kilometres or 500 miles.

Great fuel economy, with the space and power we have come to expect in an North American vehicle; sounds like a deal.

In the meantime, the Escape will provide space and utility at competitive prices.

Three Canadian models include the four-cylinder/manual transmission combination in front or all-wheel drive with standard XLS trim, starting at just over $20,000 and under $23,000, respectively.

The V6 automatic includes all-wheel drive and deluxe trim for just under $28,700.

Those numbers make Escape a deal for a small SUV. And the pricing picture looks even better compared to compact sport-utes.

A breath of fresh air indeed.

2001 Ford Escape base prices

*2×4 XLS 4cyl.: $20,245

*4×4 XLS 4cyl.: $22,895

*4×4 XLT V6: $28,695

Freelance journalist Paul Fleet prepared this report based on driving experiences with a vehicle provided by the automaker. Email: pfleet@idirect.com

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