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Ford broadens appeal of best-selling Escape

Ford has freshened the appearance of its best-selling Escape SUV for 2005, hoping to keep pace with a broadening choice of models jumping into its market segment.

This makeover also includes interior changes, but the key addition is likely to be a new automatic transmission coupled to its base four-cylinder engine offering.

Getting this feature added to the bottom end of its price scale – and rushing the '05 introduction – is a calculated move that can only suggest that Ford feels it needs to strengthen its product to keep its top ranking.

Escape claims the Number 1 position in compact SUV sales, but with several all-new compacts from Nissan, Chevy and Hyundai coming on the market, its upgrade may well be just in time.

Escape brand manager Saud Abbasi, speaking to auto writers at the introduction of the 2005 Escape, says Ford was losing sales because it wasn't offering an entry-level engine with an automatic transmission.

The base Escape still comes with a standard transmission, but adds more value with a new, more powerful inline four-cylinder engine. It's priced at $22,795.

Adding an automatic brings the price to $25,395. (The steep price differential includes air conditioning with the autobox.) How do the changes fare in real life? Leaving Ford's Oakville head office on a media ride-and-drive to maple syrup country near Woodstock, the first thing I noticed about this new Escape was the shifter. It's now on the floor.

This change has uncluttered the steering column and dash, and divides the interior space more evenly.

The instrument panel cluster is new, as are the seat cushions and fabrics. The interior plastic colours are nicely toned down from previous versions.

Cabin noise levels have benefited, too. Ford stresses that sound absorbing panels and tighter seals have reduced interior noise.

After driving on-road and off, I agree it's better, but I'd add: Keep trying.

In the back, even the entry-level Escape now gets a 60/40 split seat that folds flat. The Limited edition that I drove first had these improvements plus upgraded power leather seats, luxury comfort package, moonroof, aluminum wheels and V6 power combined with the new automatic 4WD system.

This set-up tops out Escape's price at $35,895.

With just over $12,000 separating the base vehicle from the loaded version, Ford hopes buyers will find a vehicle and trim combination that suits their driving and wallets.

Taking a breather near the town of Paris, I switched my V6 tester for a base XLS Escape with the new inline four-cylinder engine, which turned out to be a spunky little motor.

I wheeled the Escape around the Grand River Valley, feeling this compact's polite on-road manners. But it also has a rough edge – you feel every pothole.

The ride was a sharp contrast to the last two new SUVs I tested, both of which shared chassis that offered the ride characteristics of a sedan. A fact that certainly made sense given the reality of where most SUVs spend their time – on pavement.

The Ford, on the other hand, feels truck-based despite its unitized body construction and independent rear suspension that, on paper at least, should also have offered a more car-like ride.

It doesn't. The assembly of its underpinnings conveys a truck-like feel right up through the seat, the steering and stance of the truck.

Maple syrup season is just about over, but I figure getting out to the sugar bush was as good a reason as any to get us to run all kinds of gravel roads. The other reason for all the dirt-tracking was to show off the SUV's new optional Intelligent 4WD system.

The normally front-wheel-drive Escape will get a computer-controlled system that is designed to operate transparently, doing away with dashboard switches and effectively taking the driver out of the traction decision process.

Normally biased 100 per cent to front-wheel drive, the computer calculates road input 200 times a second – automatically transferring varying degrees of power to the rear axle as needed.

The upside is the elimination of stress on the driveline and steering components while making low-speed turns, such as in a parking lot. The downside is a loss of some off-road ability that comes from being able to "lock" all four wheels.

For this last reason, Ford was anxious for us to run the Escape on the off-road course. The short course was about as aggressive as anything most drivers would tackle. And though the sun was out, a week of rain had left it muddy. The Escape handled it with some wheelspin, scraping its bottom here and there, but emerging intact.

To accommodate the new fully automatic Intelligent 4WD system, Ford has added ABS and a feature called Quick Brake Assist to all models of Escape, a bonus whether you get the four-wheel-drive system or not.

The new 2.3 L engine develops 153 hp and 152 lb.-ft. of torque with the manual transmission.

That's an increase of 26 hp over last year's 2.0 L motor. But, most important to the segment is the fact that this new inline four-cylinder is now available with an automatic transmission.

This new motor (despite having a larger displacement) is almost 18 kg lighter than its predecessor.

Engineers have also added a chain-driven balance shaft that greatly reduces vibration while a new four-hole fuel injector design smoothes out combustion.

Incidentally this engine architecture will be used in the Escape Hybrid that goes on sale later this year. That hybrid-electric version will use the four-cylinder inline along with an electric-boost motor that promises to provide the power of a V6 while cutting emissions and raising fuel economy.

After a lunch of pancakes, baked beans, ham and (you guessed it) maple syrup, I chose to run the more powerful engine choice back to Oakville.

This is the Duratec 3.0 L V6, pretty much the same engine as last year with some electronic changes.

It pumps out 200 hp and 193 lb.-ft. of torque and is offered with the four-speed automatic transmission only.

The V6 gets a higher tow rating (1,588 kg) compared to the four-banger (680 kg).

Viewed from numerous angles during stops in the sugar bush, the Escape's new headlamps, fog lamps, egg-crate grille, front and rear fascia give it a nice look – in the way that someone you already know gets a new haircut.

I liked it before, now it's a little neater and trimmed.

But the real story is, Ford has done its homework and broadened the appeal of the Escape.

Howard J. Elmer can be reached at powersports @ sympatico.ca.

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