The Cute Ute Comes of Age

Mj 618_348_the cute ute comes of age

Throughout its decade-long run, Ford’s smallest crossover, the Escape, has been a sales smash in the “cute ute” segment (small vehicles styled like SUVs, but with little – or no – off-road capabilities.). Even though changes since its 2001 introduction were relatively minor, Ford managed to sell 254,000 Escapes in its outgoing model year. That made it the best-selling SUV in the States, and thus it’s as easy to spot one on the highway as it is to nab an Eagles’ Greatest Hits CD in a thrift store bargain bin.

So what did Ford do for its follow-up? Interestingly, it started from scratch. And after a weekend test drive of the fully loaded model, which stickers at nearly $34K, we can attest that the result of Ford’s ground-up redesign is vehicle that’s much more compelling than the boxy, innocuous Escape it replaces, thanks to more responsive handling, a more powerful engine, and a geek-pleasing pack of tech tricks.

We drove the all-wheel drive Titanium-trimmed model, which is powered by a turbocharged 2.0-liter “EcoBoost” engine that puts out 240 hp while making about 23 mpg combined. Turbo lag feels minimal, and stoplight-to-stoplight runs are surprisingly punchy. The upgraded engine gives the Escape an edge on its competitive set, with more muscle than both the fully-spec’d Honda CR-V (180 hp) and the Mazda CX-5 (155 hp). The Escape also offers a smaller turbocharged engine, a 1.6-liter four that makes 178 hp. A naturally aspirated 2.5-liter four (168 hp) is standard, and all models get a six-speed automatic transmission. Also: A hybrid version is in the works.

The array of gadgetry shoehorned into the new Escape is impressive. The motion-sensing power liftgate (optional) can open its trunk when you gently kick your foot under its rear bumper. Shutters in its grille close at highway speeds for a bump in fuel economy. Sophisticated computer aids can slow the vehicle if you corner too fast, and torque vectoring can help accelerate through turns if you don’t. The Titanium model’s blind spot and park assist features give the SUV more active surveillance than a Super Bowl venue. And though the infotainment system (called SYNC with MyFord Touch) still has too many layers sandwiched into its interface, the seamlessness with which it pairs with your phone vie Bluetooth and allows you to call or play music from it hands-free via voice-recognition is among the best we’ve encountered.

The new Escape’s exterior captures the eye, too, though some might say it’s overstyled. Sure, there may be more lines present here than there were in the studio during the recording of Hotel California, but a sloping roofline and aggressive grille give the new Escape a presence that the old one lacked, so we’re all for it.

All signs say “smash hit,” so get used to seeing this one – it could be around a while. Cue up the Don Henley. [From $22,470;]

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