LOUISVILLE, Kentucky—With Ford preparing for a post-car lineup in America—only the Mustang has been spared—the Dearborn manufacturer needs to have an offering ready for buyers spurned by its dramatic strategy shift. In other words, Ford must get the next-generation 2020 Escape right if it wants to retain consumers looking for an update to their Focus, Fusion, or even Taurus.
At the first-drive event, we spent the most time in a 2020 Ford Escape Titanium, rather than an SEL trim, in order to sample a fully loaded vehicle. It was painted Magnetic Metallic and rode on 19-inch machined aluminum wheels. The bodywork looked upscale, and with the quad-style LED headlights, a few other writers attending the event muttered that it looked a little bit like a Porsche Macan, as if this was a bad thing. Ford kept the dual-exit exhaust from the previous-generation model, which helps create an appearance that, on looks, promises a sporty drive.
Beneath the hood was the EcoBoost turbocharged 2.0-liter four-cylinder, the most potent option available in the Escape range. The engine is so smooth that you hardly feel any vibration during normal operation. It makes a fairly throaty rumble at full throttle, offering some gratification for those attempting to drive the crossover with a little enthusiasm.
The engine’s 250 horsepower and 280 lb-ft of torque proved to be ample to move the AWD-equipped car off the line. The Ford-developed eight-speed automatic transmission does good work to shuffle through the gears during moderate driving and to provide positive upshifts under harder acceleration, but when called upon to kick down, it occasionally hunts for gears. This Escape also featured vague, overly boosted steering feel and a hypersensitive brake pedal, dampening our enthusiasm a bit. Indeed, Ford routed us through some fantastic backcountry roads in the Louisville area, and rather than highlight the vehicle’s abilities, they instead showcased its weaknesses.
The steering rack had noticeable play around center, with responses initiated only after maybe five degrees of lock. It then became oversensitive within the next few degrees, with further input delivering much more normal responses. On curvy roads, even when traveling at or at less than the speed limit, it was difficult to traverse a bend smoothly without making several corrections. The suspension, which uses passive damping, offers a comfortable ride and does well to keep body roll in check, although the otherwise comfortable seats could use a bit more lateral support.
Likewise, braking response is aggressive at the top of pedal travel, but overall feel is vague. It added a further layer of difficulty when attempting to wind through Kentucky’s hills with confidence. Owners may get used to the odd calibrations, but every corner seemed to entail jerky braking and continuous trajectory corrections. The steering calibration, at least, will be useful for arrow-straight highway cruises in that it won’t feel nervous.
The dynamic shortfalls are unfortunate because chassis rigidity is quite good, a validation of the new C2 platform under the Escape. (The new-generation Focus we don’t get also uses this architecture.) The unibody is comprised of a combination of high-strength steel and other weight-saving materials, which helped Ford drop the Escape’s curb weight by 200 pounds on average. But even while a diet was a priority for this generation of the crossover SUV, the team responsible for noise, vibration, and harshness worked hard to keep cabin noise to a minimum.
An isolated rear subframe is a major component of the efforts. Ford’s work paid off in this regard; from our time on the road, the cabin remains fairly quiet the majority of the time. Wind noise was the most prevalent cabin intrusion, primarily at freeway speeds. The Titanium trim level’s interior looks premium for its class, although that impression is primarily up front. Our car had Sandstone leather and faux wood trim that contributed to the near-premium vibe. Yet aside from upgrading the upholstery Ford didn’t change any of the materials in the rear versus lesser models, leaving it looking as bare and sparse as that of the base-level vehicle.
A digital gauge cluster is included in the Titanium, and it’s packed with legibly presented information. Select a new drive mode and a short video plays and dominates most of the screen. Although it may impress a potential buyer in a showroom, the graphics had an unfortunate amount of latency and remained on the screen for a bit longer than seemed necessary.
We also had an opportunity to sample a front-wheel-drive SE fitted with the base engine choice, a turbocharged 1.5-liter three-cylinder powerplant. In spite of its size, the tiny engine produces a robust 181 horsepower and 190 lb-ft of torque. Throttle response felt a bit laggy in the standard drive mode but pepped up significantly in Sport.
Overall acceleration from the three-banger is strong, too, and it has a lively exhaust note once revved up. This engine includes a cylinder-deactivation feature—and we mean a feature that deactivates one cylinder—when cruising, but our time behind the wheel with the three was so short we didn’t have a chance to notice if it had activated.
Though it boasted far fewer options than the Titanium, the Escape SE seemed to have more character than the more heavily equipped alternative. It rang up at $28,985 as tested, too, putting it in a sweet spot overlapping much of the price range served by all those discontinued cars.
The spec charts and pricing breakdowns seemingly show the 2020 Escape checks all the right boxes, but our initial stints behind the wheel didn’t quite deliver on that promise. It’s not quite as fun to drive as the previous Ford cars, even if it does look great, and we’re not sure we see any game-changing attributes that will convince all those buyers of Honda CR-Vs and Toyota RAV4s to make a switch. Longer exposure could help us warm up to Ford’s latest, but it’s clear the 2020 Escape still needs a bit more polish to be great. If that doesn’t happen, and fast, it will likely fade into the miasma of the industry’s hottest segment.
2020 Ford Escape Specifications
|ON SALE||Fall 2019|
|BASE PRICES||S, $26,080; SE, $28,290; SEL, $30,450; Titanium, $34,595|
|ENGINES||1.5L turbocharged DOHC 12-valve inline-3 181 hp, 190 lb-ft; 2.0L turbocharged DOHC 16-valve inline-4 250 hp, 280 lb-ft|
|LAYOUT||4-door, 5-passenger, front-engine, AWD Crossover|
|EPA MILEAGE||23–27/31–33 mpg (city/hwy)|
|L x W x H||180.5 x 74.1 x 68.6 in|
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