With European-style handling, luxury looks, surprising refinement and new features for 2013, Ford’s compact sport utility vehicle, the Escape, doesn’t seem like an Escape anymore.
The familiar boxy shape is replaced by a sleek, rich-looking exterior, and the Escape’s V-6, manual transmission and gasoline-electric hybrid model are all gone.
Instead, every 2013 Escape comes with a six-speed automatic and a choice of three gasoline-powered four-cylinder engines.
All three front-wheel drive models garner a minimum rating of 30 mpg on the highway from the federal government, and two are turbocharged and deliver at least 184 foot-pounds of torque.
In contrast, the only 2012 Escape with a fuel mileage rating of 30 mpg or more on the window sticker was the hybrid, which started at more than $30,000.
The starting price, including destination charge, is $23,295 for a base Escape S with 168-horsepower, naturally aspirated four-cylinder, automatic transmission and front-wheel drive.
This base vehicle is rated at 22 mpg city, 31 mpg highway travel and includes air conditioning and cloth seats, with Ford’s Sync voice-activated entertainment system available as a $295 option.
Unfortunately, pricing goes up considerably from the base model, and the test Escape with four-wheel drive and the top equipment and trim level called Titanium, plus options, tops out at more than $36,000.
In between the base and the top models are, thankfully, a number of choices – all with two rows of seats providing room for five.
The lowest price for an Escape with one of the peppier, turbocharged engines is $25,895 for an SE with 178-horsepower four-cylinder, automatic transmission, front-wheel drive and mileage of 23/33 mpg.
The lowest price for a four-wheel-drive model is $27,645, and that is with the 178-horsepower, turbocharged engine.
Ford’s re-engineered Escape is a sibling of the company’s Kuga, which is a compact crossover in Europe. The European heritage was one of the first impressions of the test model. The vehicle felt solidly planted on the road, even on twisty mountain roads.
Weight shift from one side to the other during curves was well-managed and provided a more confident ride than that found in previous Escapes. In fact, there was little tippy feel, and road bumps came through mostly as mild vibrations.
To be sure, the Escape felt substantial and solid. It’s not exactly a heavy sensation, but even a base 2013 Escape weighs more than 3,500 pounds.
Overall, the ride was pleasant and more refined than in earlier versions, even though the Titanium rode on stylish, 19-inch wheels.
The tester had the most powerful of the four-cylinders – a 240-horsepower, 2-liter, double overhead cam, turbocharged engine that, like other Ford four-cylinder turbos, carries the name EcoBoost.
Premium fuel is recommended to get the maximum power, which includes 270 foot-pounds of torque at 3,000 rpm.
In real-world driving, though, this turbo didn’t send the Escape zooming forward in a rush. Rather, power was delivered smoothly but not instantaneously, even when the accelerator pedal was suddenly pressed to the floor.
In gentle acceleration, the SUV, which weighed more than 3,700 pounds, moved comfortably through traffic, and the four-wheel disc brakes – an upgrade from rear drums in the 2012 model – worked capably.
The interior was impressive. Premium materials, including nicer plastic on the sizable dashboard, gave an upscale feel. The optional, full leather trim on the test Escape seats helped, too.
The Escape is one of the few compact SUVs to offer a power liftgate. Ford’s liftgate has a twist: You can kick your foot under the rear bumper, where a sensor detects it, and the rear hatch opens automatically.