First drive: 2013 Ford Escape

Last year, the Ford Escape sold more than a quarter of a million units — its best year ever. Yet, in a strange twist, this year is the last for its current generational styling and architecture. For 2013, we are getting an all-new Escape. If you love your old Escape, hang on to it, because there won’t be another like it.

This newest version is a collaboration between designers and engineers in Germany and the United States, for assembly plants in Spain, Kentucky and China. In other words, the newest Escape is a “world car.” It even has a cute name for its overseas markets — the Kuga.

The new body design of the Escape is meant to evoke the look of runners and swimmers — a lean, muscled body style, says Ford. There’s no remnant of the old three-box body style. Interestingly, this sleeker new look actually hides the fact that this Escape is slightly longer than the old model. It’s a space difference put to good use in upping the cargo space inside. While space for stuff is up, the seats have slimmed down, shedding 1.4 kilograms each. Yet they’ve added functions. Two-way lumbar support and two-way power recline joins the familiar six-way adjustable norm for greater position variety. As an option, a sport seat is available with higher bolsters in leather trim. Though my drive was in the base seats, I found them comfortable with plenty of support even after five hours on the road.

It was during my drive around the Bay area that I clued in to the fact that I started seeing, hearing and feeling the several integrated layers of new technology at work in this popular five-passenger SUV. The first is EcoBoost.

By now, most people have heard of EcoBoost engines: the Ford invention that pushes more horsepower out of a small-displacement engine than ever before while still getting class-leading fuel economy. These have been a sales success with Ford selling more than 127,000 EcoBoost-equipped vehicles just last year. In the Escape, EcoBoost will come in two sizes: a 2.0-litre four-cylinder, a 1.6L four-cylinder and a non-EcoBoost 2.5L as the base version.

The 1.6L motor has so far only been available in Europe; the Escape will be its first North American pairing. This is the powertrain I drove past George Lucas’s Skywalker Ranch, through Marin County and out to the ocean on the Pacific Coast Highway where the Escape pulled easily through the twists and turns. Making 178 horsepower and 184 pound-feet of torque, the 1.6L EcoBoost pushed power through a six-speed automatic to drive an all-new intelligent four-wheel-drive system very much meant for on-road traction control.

It’s called “intelligent” because it virtually thinks for the driver by using sensors that monitor things such as centrifugal force. This Curve Control, for instance, can sense if the vehicle is entering a corner too fast and automatically slows the SUV. But this is just one of the functions that is controlled from the data being fed to the CPU from 25 different sources.

The other has to do with torque distribution. The computer distributes torque to the four wheels based on need, which translates to reading the road. Wheels that slip (on ice, for example) have their power cut, while wheels with traction pick up the slack with a boost of torque. This sort of system is not new, but Ford has also added the feedback from control systems such as steering wheel angle, brake and/or accelerator demand versus the actual turning of the vehicle. To do this, Ford uses an electro-mechanical clutch or a device that can slow or increase the flow of power to the wheels. All these adjustments take place 20 times faster than the blink of an eye. As a way of showing the driver where the system is directing the engine torque, a dashboard screen displays the power distribution.

So, between the EcoBoost engine and intelligent electronics, it’s easy to forget that the Escape is very much a family vehicle that features some conveniences for busy parents and children. New this year is an automatic hatch opener — it’s activated by making a kicking motion under the centre of the rear bumper. This activates a sensor that unlocks and raises the liftgate, even with the key fob in your pocket. The cargo deck height has also been lowered so it’s easier to use (it’s 68.8 centimetres high).

This year, the Escape will have Ford’s Park Assist available as well. This is the automatic parallel parking system that lets the driver let go of the wheel while the car parks itself. A new safety system is also coming to the Escape. The Blind Spot Information System searches for vehicles in the Escape’s blind spots and sounds a warning. It also detects cross traffic, such as when backing out of a parking space at the mall. That will save some paint.

While no scrap of the old Escape is present in this new model, I was pleased to see that the towing capability has been retained. Ford knows that Escape owners tend to tow more than most small SUV owners and, to that end, the truck is rated to tow 1,590 kilograms when properly equipped,

The Escape will come in FWD-only and AWD versions as well as three trim levels, plus a new Titanium package. Pricing will start at $21,499 and top out at $37,499. Units will be on dealer lots soon.

Photograph by: Howard J. Elmer, for National Post