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European Road-Manners And a Tight Back Seat For This American CR-V Fighter

The model-year 2014 Ford Escape is the best compact crossover for you if you’re willing to give up some interior space to get terrific road manners. You’ll also need to acquire a taste for some—um—ambitious styling inside and out, and be patient with the carmaker’s idea of cutting-edge connectivity. The rewards are a European-grade driving experience and some pretty cleaver conveniences, like a liftgate that opens with a wiggle of your foot.

This is the sophomore season for an SUV that underwent a big change for the better in model-year 2013. Ford shelved a primitive 10-year-old design and replaced it with a modern crossover based on one it sells in Europe. Americans responded by making the snazzy new model the country’s top-selling compact SUV—a title it’s since relinquished to the more sensible-shoes Honda CR-V.

The styling for model-year 2014 is unaltered, so the body remains a mini-riot of curves and creases and vents. And the automaker drops the SEL trim level, leaving the base S, midline SE and the top-of-the-line Titanium.

All versions now have a rearview camera, plus a front passenger seat that’s height-adjustable. And the hands-free liftgate becomes available with the trailer package, so you can open it with your toe—and tow 3,500 pounds.

There’s plenty of space in front on supportive buckets. The rear seatbacks recline, but roominess is a sore spot, with knee clearance at a premium if the front seats are more than halfway back. Look to the Honda CR-V or Toyota RAV4 if your compact-crossover plans include grownups or even teenagers back there. A number of rivals have more cargo capacity, too, though Escape’s 34 cubic feet behind the rear seat and 68 with it folded easily handle most needs.

Most compact crossovers offer one engine—two at most. This offering is available with three. All of them are four-cylinders, and two are turbocharged.

The S model has a gruff 168-horsepower 2.5-liter and is front-wheel drive only. SE and Titanium come with a turbocharged 1.6-liter from the company’s EcoBoost engine family. Its 178 horsepower is on par with competitors’ base engines, but its 184 pound-feet of torque is more than most.

A two-liter EcoBoost is an $1,195 option for the SE and Titanium. With 240 horsepower and a robust 270 pound-feet of torque, it’s among the most powerful engines in the class. All-wheel drive is $1,750 more for the SE and Titanium models.

Every iteration of the Escape rates between 24 and 26 mpg city/highway combined. That’s around the class median, but it’s impressive given the EcoBoost engines’ performance. Incidentally, the only engine for which Ford recommends premium-octane gas is the two-liter EcoBoost.

The 1.6-liter turbo’s low-rpm torque makes it ideal for most buyers, while 2-liter versions are among the quickest crossovers under $40,000.

A six-speed automatic is the only transmission. It’s responsive, but this sporty crossover deserves steering-wheel paddle shifters rather than an awkward little button on the gear lever.

Escape’s Euro roots are evident in spirited road manners. EcoBoost versions suffer a trace of turbo lag off the line, and getting all their performance to the pavement is best accomplished with AWD. Ford’s system is a good one. It analyzes road conditions and driver inputs such as steering-wheel angle, and then adds or subtracts torque to help handling.

Ride quality isn’t great with the 18-inch wheels standard on the Titanium and optional on the SE. It’s harsh with the Titanium’s optional 19s. And wind and road noise are not always well muffled.

Just as the exterior styling seems a little forced, so does the dashboard layout. Still, most controls are where you expect them, and materials quality is at the top of the competitive set. And every model comes with a pretty effective version of Ford’s Sync system. It has a 4.2-inch dashboard screen and another in the instrument cluster to display phone, audio, and trip data.

Complications begin when you add MyFord Touch, which is standard on the Titanium and part of a $1,340 option on the SE model. Developed with Microsoft, the intent is to streamline control of climate and infotainment functions, as well as navigation, for which Ford charges an additional $750. Escape’s MyFord Touch has an eight-inch display and responds to voice commands, touchscreen prompts and steering-wheel buttons. But voice commands too often get lost in translation. Furthermore, the steering wheel buttons are cryptic, and using the touchscreen kind of defeats the purpose.

The carmaker is working to simplify this system, even adding conventional buttons to some versions. But it remains frustrating enough to get some blame for Ford’s recent drop in owner-satisfaction ratings.

One technology that works as advertised is Active Park Assist. Included in a $1,735 option exclusive to the Titanium model, it detects a suitable parallel parking space and automatically steers the vehicle into it. You control only the gas and brake. Though it’s a strange sensation, it’s actually pretty cool.

Maybe it’s that EcoBoost premium or the high-grade interior materials, but the volume-selling Escapes are a bit pricier than direct rivals. SEs account for 50 percent of sales and start at $26,445. Forty-percent of buyers go for the Titanium, which begins at $29,995. Titaniums come with leather upholstery and are the only models with the hands-free liftgate. Add AWD, the two-liter and active-park assist, and you’re at $35,500. You can score a good midsize crossover for that money.

The better value is an AWD 1.6-liter SE for $28,195. Sync already includes Bluetooth, so the SE buyer must decide whether to shell out an additional $2,100 for navigation—and get MyFord Touch in the bargain.

Overall, this vehicle is a success, a great example of Ford’s commitment to bringing European design and dynamics to its American customers. If you can live with the tight rear seat and make peace with MyFord Touch, it deserves a place on your shopping list.

About Chuck Giametta

This nationally recognized, award-winning writer brings to Carpreview.com two decades of automotive testing and reporting for newspapers, books, magazines, and the Internet. The former Executive Auto Editor of Consumer Guide, Chuck has covered cars for HowStuffWorks.com, Collectible Automobile magazine, and the Publications International Ltd. automotive book series. This ex-newspaper reporter has also appeared as an automotive expert on network television and radio. He’s a charter member of the Midwest Automotive Media Association, the president of the Rocky Mountain Automotive Media association, and a juror for the annual Active Lifestyle Vehicle of the Year awards. Chuck writes from Colorado Springs, Colo. If you have a question for Chuck, write to him at [email protected]