A total redesign of the Ford Escape for 2013 moved the top-selling compact SUV into the contemporary era, courtesy of high-tech small engines, a smooth 6-speed transmission, aerodynamic front styling, and electronic wizardry. Ford claimed 11 features exclusive to the Escape in the compact SUV class: everything from a capless fuel nozzle to Torque Vectoring Control, which helps the Escape corner more securely.
Changes for the 2014 model year are modest, but worth noting. The 2014 Escape offers three model choices: Escape S, Escape SE, and Escape Titanium. (The previous SEL edition is gone.) A four-way manual passenger seat is standard in all 2014 Escape models; so is a rearview camera. 2014 Escape Titanium models have full leather-trimmed seats, as well as 18-inch wheels of sparkle nickel-plated aluminum. Ford SYNC, a voice-activated communications and entertainment system, is available with AppLink on the 2014 Escape. Late in the 2014 Escape model year, Ford's hands-free liftgate will be available with the Class II trailer-tow package so you won't have to choose between the two of them.
Fuel economy ranges from an EPA-estimated 23/32 mpg City/Highway with the 1.6-liter front-wheel-drive Escape, to 21/28 mpg with the 2.0-liter and all-wheel drive. We drove both versions in a spirited fashion and fell below those marks, averaging 22.7 mpg in the 1.6-liter and 19.7 mpg in the 2.0-liter. EPA figures for the 2014 Escape are slightly better than those of a comparably equipped Honda CR-V or Toyota RAV4 (and good enough, at least on the highway, to induce Ford to abandon the Escape Hybrid after 2012).
The 2014 Ford Escape offers a choice of three engines, all four-cylinder: The least expensive is the tried-and-true 2.5-liter, but it's also the least powerful and the least efficient. Much more modern are the four-cylinder EcoBoost engines. There's a 1.6-liter Ecoboost making 178 horsepower and a 2.0-liter Ecoboost that makes 240 horsepower. Their designs differ, but both are twin-turbocharged four-cylinder engines with direct injection and twin independent variable camshaft timing (Ti-VCT). Ford claims Ti-VCT improves peak power by up to 7 percent and low-speed torque by 5 percent, to quicken acceleration. Fuel economy is expected to be 4.5 percent better than a non-EcoBoost engine.
Drivetrain choice is important because it significantly affects the driving character of the Ford Escape. We found a 1.6-liter front-wheel-drive Escape feels completely different from a 2.0-liter all-wheel-drive model. The 1.6-liter with front-wheel drive is quick, lively and visceral, a blast to drive. The 2.0-liter AWD feels solid, heavier, more civilized, more grown-up. All of them offer a smooth ride, a benefit of this latest-generation Escape's rigid chassis.
Creature comfort is impeccable, even with the standard fabric upholstery, rugged and handsome. Interior materials are soft, and the plastic high quality. Rear legroom is decent, at 36.8 inches, and rear climate control is standard in all but the Escape S base model. There's excellent cargo space, 68.1 cubic feet behind the first row and 34.3 cubic feet behind the second row, and the standard 60/40 rear seat folds flat wonderfully fast, using one lever.
Overall, Escape's styling emulates its big brother, the Explorer. However, its nose more resembles its little sister, the Focus hatchback, distinctive, sort of aero stubby, with the familiar blue oval emblem centered in its wide, narrow grille. The hood has nice character lines, and the headlights sweep sharply back and up into muscular wheel wells.
One clever innovation, which others have been copying, is an available magic release for the liftgate. Kick your foot under the rear bumper, and presto, the liftgate pops open so you can drop your heavy things into the back without having to set them down. It's a feature we like, and would buy, although you can do the same with a remote keyfob that opens the liftgate; that is, if you remember to carry it in your hand with your thumb over the button when you leave the grocery store with your arms full. New for 2014, the hands-free liftgate is available along with the Escape's Class II towing package.
The top-level Escape is available with Active Park Assist. By simply pushing a button, the system detects an available parallel-parking space, then automatically steers the vehicle right into it. The driver operates only the gas and brake pedals, not touching the steering wheel during the parking procedure.
We did not find MyFordTouch, the in-car communications and entertainment system, easy to use.