LOUISVILLE, KY – It was like being in a frying pan. The searing sun and steam room-level humidity made short stints outdoors nearly unbearable. But I still wished I could have stayed a bit longer.
The largest city in Kentucky is known for its Bourbon and the Kentucky Derby. It’s the birthplace of Muhammed Ali and home to what might be the largest baseball bat in the world. All excellent reasons to visit. But it’s the southern hospitality and beautifully preserved Victorian architecture that will make you stay.
Louisville is also where the new Ford Escape is built and the real reason I was there. And it’s been completely redesigned for 2020.
Earlier this year we told you what you needed to know about the new Escape. Now we finally get a chance to put it through its paces on the sinewy roads outside Louisville that take you on a tour of Kentucky’s famous Bourbon Trail.
The Escape is the 2nd best selling product in Ford’s global portfolio and as you’d expect they’ve thrown everything they have at this new one. The compact CUV segment is quickly growing into the largest and most fiercely competitive in the industry. They are the proverbial hot cakes of cars with entries like the Toyota RAV4, the Honda CR-V, and Chevy Equinox, driven by value and efficiency but still offering that oh-so desirable tall ride height and trucklet styling
Since Ford isn’t bringing the new Focus here, consider the new Escape the closest you’ll get. Based on the same underpinnings, they share many of the same styling cues. Like the massive front grille and large almond-shaped headlights. The excited face might be polarizing but the distinctive look grew on me over the 2 days that we spent with it.
A slightly tapered roofline and the taut, flowing sheet metal contribute to a hushed interior ambiance, a major goal for the engineers who gave the Escape things like recessed fog lights, underbody shielding, and active grille shutters to help it slice through the air as cleanly as possible. Other contributors include an isolated rear subframe, and top trims get acoustic laminated glass for the windshield and front windows. They even gave the leather seats perforations which help further absorb unwanted noise. Indeed, driving the Escape with passengers in tow allowed for easy conversation with very little wind noise even at highway speeds.
But first, a bit more on the available trims before I get into how the Escape drives. There are four to choose from: S, SE, SEL, and Titanium. Prices start at $28,549 for the base SE and top out at $40,049 for a fully loaded Titanium with all-wheel drive.
For the first time, you can get AWD on any Escape for an additional $2000. And Ford’s driver-assist system, Co-pilot 360, is standard equipment. This suite of safety nannies will, among other things, monitor your blind spots, control your high beams automatically, keep you centered in your lane, and apply the brakes for you in an emergency situation if it detects a collision scenario with a car or pedestrian in your path. It also has something called post-collision braking that will apply the brakes after a collision is detected helping to prevent any further injury or damage.
Initially, there will be three powertrains to choose from, two of them are gasoline, and one’s a hybrid. A fourth plug-in hybrid variant will arrive next spring.
S, SE, SEL trims will come standard with just three-cylinders. Yes, you read that correctly. But before you turn your nose up on what might seem like an engine more suited to a motorcycle, remember that most engines today are turbocharged and this one is no different. Displacing 1.5 litres, it makes an impressive 181 hp and 190 lb-ft of torque (on 93 pump octane). That’s more than the base model on the outgoing Escape despite being down a full litre of displacement. It will even run on just 2-cylinders when power requirements are low.
Ford’s Ecoboost 2-L turbo 4-cylinder is optional on SEL and Titanium trims and it cranks out 250 hp and 280 lb-ft of torque and while it also requires 93-octane gas, it’s important to note that these engines will happily run on regular in exchange for a small power loss.
But the big news here, of course, is the two new hybrid models. The plug-in gets a 14.4 kWh lithium-ion battery and a zero-emission electric-only range of 48 kilometres. But it was the one model we didn’t get to drive just yet. The standard hybrid powertrain comes standard on Titanium models and has a new liquid-cooled 1.1 kWh battery that’s just one-third the size of the one in the original Escape Hybrid and is packed under the floor where it doesn’t compromise passenger and cargo volume. Both hybrids are paired with a 2.5-L Atkinson cycle 4-cylinder engine that puts out 200 combined horsepower in the standard hybrid and slightly more in plug-in form.
While I did drive the standard Hybrid, impressions are under an embargo for a few more days and this review will focus solely on the gasoline models.
No matter what powertrain you specify, all are hooked up to an 8-speed automatic, while the hybrids feature an eCVT, whose only thing in common with an actual CVT transmission is the name.
When designing the new Escape, the goals were flexibility and user-friendliness, so they gave it sliding second-row seats that can be moved back up to 6 inches for max legroom or moved forward 6 inches to accommodate more cargo. A pair of 6-footers would be quite comfortable even on extended rides.
In the front an upright 8-inch touchscreen loaded with an updated version of SYNC 3 controls all infotainment duties and has graphics that are much more vibrant but feel very familiar. The new system is responsive and easy to use especially if you’ve had any experience with the older SYNC systems. It’s also compatible with Android Auto and Apple Car Play, a must these days. You do have to step up to an SE to get it though, as the base model makes do with a much smaller 4.2-inch screen and runs an older version of the software. Navigation is bundled with the upgraded CoPilot Assist which adds adaptive cruise with stop-and-go and evasive steering assist for an additional $850.
Materials and fit and finish were a pleasant surprise and better than expected. A definite step up from the last generation. Titanium models get leather seating and faux wood trim and most touch points and surfaces use soft-touch materials. There’s a rotary gear selector here like on some FCA products, and I do find them more intuitive then many of the electronic joystick type selectors being used today.
SEL trims also come with a heated steering wheel and a remote starter, the latter being an option that’s available on all Escapes.
The roads around Louisville were smooth, sinuous ribbons of tarmac that offered a bigger challenge for the Escape’s handling abilities than I expected. And for the most part I came away pretty impressed with the serene and comfortable ride and well controlled body motions even with the taller ride height typical of a crossover.
Steering feel was vague but fairly quick with a slight on-centre dead spot but similar to other competitors in this category and didn’t pose a problem for anything that came its way. Although the tires did get a bit squealy when entering a corner with a bit too much speed. Likely a product of their eco-friendly design which trades ultimate grip for lower rolling resistance. And the one thing that has to be noted here, is that roadholding is probably not super-high up on the list of wants for buyers looking for an Escape or a RAV4. Getting past that, the 2020 Escape is light on its feet and reasonably peppy.
Both EcoBoost powertrains move the Escape along swiftly but I felt a bit more gear-hunting from the 8-speed with the 3-cylinder. And although it was more audible than the 2-L, you’d be hard-pressed to tell that an engine so small was sitting under the hood. The 190 lb-ft of torque comes low in the rev range and it comes on strong and should be more than adequate for most but if you find that it’s not enough the 280 lb-ft of torque generated by the boosted four has your back. It also ups the tow rating from 2000 lbs to 3500 lbs if you plan to use the Escape for some light hauling duties.
Even though this Escape is larger and has more space for passengers and cargo it’s lighter by about 200 lbs thanks to extensive use of high-strength steel in the unibody and ultra-high-strength martensitic steel used in the frame rails and A-pillars. Impressive considering that’s there’s much more standard content now.
All Escapes also get switchable drive modes for the first time, and you can go from Normal, to Sport, to Eco, to Slippery, or Snow and Sand. Each mode will load a specific throttle map and transmission profile to suit the road conditions or individual driving preference. Switching between them loads a cool animation on the configurable 12.3-inch fully digital instrument cluster screen that comes with Titanium models. There’s also a new head-up display that is projected on a small plastic screen on the dash rather than on the windshield and lacks the colour and detail of many others that I’ve used. But it’s not a common feature at this price point and it’s nice they decided to add one.
The 2020 Escape is value driven and brings a lot of technology to the table for not a lot of money. Availability of features like AWD on all trims and an impressive level of standard safety and assistance features make it an excellent choice in a crowded market where loyalties run deep.
Look for the Escape to start hitting dealer lots at the time of this writing with the plug-in models joining the fold spring 2020.