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Ford Escape 2021 urban review

It might have an Aston Martin grille and Porsche SUV profile, but the Escape's talents are unique. (image: Byron Mathioudakis)

Daily driver score

4.5/5

Urban score

4.5/5

Like famous 20th Century illusionist Harry Houdini, the all-new and appropriately named Escape isn't all that it seems.

Made in Spain, the fourth-gen Escape is really a MK3 Kuga engineered in Germany - not an American, as the Blue Oval badge implies. Though appearing smaller than before, the length, wheelbase, girth - and consequently cabin space - have actually increased. The roof is lower but a deeper floor means there's more headroom. And while everything's bigger, weight drops by about 10 per cent. Oh, and despite visual similarities, this is no Porsche Macan or Aston Martin DBX.

Finally, even though the old model was widely praised, buyers seem blind to its virtues. We drive the base 2021 Escape to find out if Ford's latest Euro medium SUV can persuade them otherwise.

Does it represent good value for the price? What features does it come with?

Frankly, Ford's marketing baffles us.

Now known simply as 'Escape FWD', the entry-level ZH-series auto starts from $35,990 before on-road costs, and that's a hefty $5500 leap over the previous base ZG Ambiente FWD auto – or $7K more if you include the sadly now-discontinued manual.

That's not a great beginning, but Ford has actually dropped the base Ambiente grade and gone straight for the mid-grade variant. The question is, why doesn't it just say that by using the established 'Trend' name like in the old, $33,490 ZG Trend equivalent?

The ‘base’ 18-inch alloys do a fine job fooling nosey neighbours you haven’t purchased the cheapest grade. Win. (image: Byron Mathioudakis) The ‘base’ 18-inch alloys do a fine job fooling nosey neighbours you haven’t purchased the cheapest grade. Win. (image: Byron Mathioudakis)

Now, that's still a $2500 jump, but out goes the old 134kW/240Nm 1.5-litre turbo for a blazing 183kW/387Nm 2.0L turbo, still driving the front wheels, but via an eight-speed (rather than six) torque-converter automatic transmission.

This makes the Escape FWD the most powerful new SUV for the least money. To achieve similar performance in a Mazda CX-5 you'll need to find another $10K.

Speaking of the competition, the cheapest FWD auto RAV4 ($34,695 127kW/203Nm 2.0L GX), CX-5 ($32,980 115kW/200Nm 2.0L Maxx), Hyundai Tucson ($32,140 122kW/205Nm 2.0L Active), Nissan X-Trail ($32,040 126kW/225Nm 2.5L ST) and Mitsubishi Outlander ($32,490 124kW/220Nm 2.4L ES) – as well as the AWD-only Forester ($35,190 136kW/239Nm 2.5L 2.5i) – aren't that far behind the Ford nowadays anyway (except for performance), thanks to upward pricing pressure this year.

Additionally, among the bestsellers, only the Tucson Active X and Outlander LS (both of which are about to be replaced) are cheaper mid-range equivalents to the well-specified Escape.

How well equipped, you may quip?

Well, on the safety front, the base Escape doesn't lag behind its more expensive grades, so all the advanced electronic gear is present, like Autonomous Emergency Braking (AEB) with cyclist and pedestrian detection, Rear Cross Traffic Alert (RCTA), Blind Spot Detection, Lane Departure Warning, Lane Keep Assist, Evasive Steering Assist, Forward Collision Warning, Traffic Sign Recognition, Driver Impairment Monitor, Tyre Pressure Monitor, Emergency Assistance and adaptive cruise control with stop/go and speed limiter.

It comes with LED headlights and $1000 extra brings in a Technology Pack with flash Matrix headlights. (image: Byron Mathioudakis) It comes with LED headlights and $1000 extra brings in a Technology Pack with flash Matrix headlights. (image: Byron Mathioudakis)

Furthermore, there's keyless entry/start, a leather-sheathed steering wheel with paddle shifters, LED headlights, the chrome-finish exterior package (rather than the grey plastic found on actual base-model Fords), wireless smartphone charging, a 'FordPass Connect' embedded modem with FordPass App compatibility, an 8.0-inch touchscreen, digital radio, Apple CarPlay/Android Auto compatibility, Bluetooth phone and audio-streaming connectivity, voice command sat-nav, reverse camera, front/rear parking sensors, USB-A and C ports, remote window open/close, auto on/off wipers and headlights, one-touch power windows, driver-seat lumbar support, privacy glass and 18-inch alloys.

Another $1300 buys you a hands-free electric tailgate, $1000 extra brings in a Technology Pack with flash Matrix headlights, adaptive lighting and a heads-up display, while 'Prestige Paint' lightens your bank balance by another $550.

That's fairly generous kit for an opening gambit, making the not-so-base Escape seem especially inviting against similar mid-grade FWD Euro equivalents like the $39,490 Volkswagen Tiguan 110TSI Comfortline (with a 110kW/250Nm 1.4-litre turbo) and $43,990 Peugeot 3008 Allure (121kW/240Nm 1.6T).

Given the circa-$40K price point is where a big chunk of the medium SUV action is, we reckon the Escape FWD's pricing and specification is spot on. All it needs now is a badge saying so, like 'Trend' or 'XLT' or 'GL' or '500' or 'Deluxe' or 'Popular'...

Is there anything interesting about its design?

Q: What do you get when you cross an Aston Martin DBX with a Porsche Macan and Mazda CX-5?

Granted, there doesn't seem to be an original line on the fourth-generation Escape, but having styling that evokes some of the better-looking SUVs out there is no mean feat. Plus, the design does gel well, looks tidy on the road and has a taut, tight stance that gives it a compact, muscular look. And the 'base' 18-inch alloys do a fine job fooling nosey neighbours you haven't purchased the cheapest grade. Win.

Q: What do you get when you cross an Aston Martin DBX with a Porsche Macan and Mazda CX-5? (image: Byron Mathioudakis) Q: What do you get when you cross an Aston Martin DBX with a Porsche Macan and Mazda CX-5? (image: Byron Mathioudakis)

Ford's fourth attempt at taking on RAV4 and co. is also far less upright and boxy than the previous TF Kuga/ZG Escape duo. Even at its tallest (with a handy 191mm ground clearance), this version has an aero slickness lacking in most rival crossovers.

In contrast, the interior's overall look is somewhat less cohesive, like somebody chucked in a whole lot of current Hyundai i30 with a morsel of Mazda2 and a twist of 2008 Jaguar XF circular gear changer for good measure.

The design does gel well, looks tidy on the road and has a taut, tight stance that gives it a compact, muscular look. (image: Byron Mathioudakis) The design does gel well, looks tidy on the road and has a taut, tight stance that gives it a compact, muscular look. (image: Byron Mathioudakis)

How practical is the space inside?

There are two very important things worth remembering about the latest Escape's interior.

Firstly, despite the swoopier styling, no room-related downsides exist compared to before. And secondly, while Ford absolutely missed a trick with what is a timid and derivative dashboard design, everybody who actually used it came away mightily impressed as to how user-friendly and easy every single aspect of the Escape actually is to live with. Function over form rules.

The old model stood so tall it felt like the nosebleed section of your local theatre, but a nifty set of seat-height adjusters and a low floor means that Escape IV does a great job accommodating even the 99th Percentile Male.

The high-seat rear seats are divided into 60:40 portions, with each sliding forward substantially as well as reclining significantly for long-journey comfort. (image: Byron Mathioudakis) The high-seat rear seats are divided into 60:40 portions, with each sliding forward substantially as well as reclining significantly for long-journey comfort. (image: Byron Mathioudakis)

Aiding this is infinite backrest angle adjustment (a boon for pernickety recliners), pillow-soft headrests, lumbar support for better comfort and inviting cloth material. Let's also praise the superb ventilation, plentiful storage all over the place, lovely leather stitched three-spoke steering wheel with remote buttons and paddle shifters, large swivelling sun-visors with illuminated vanity mirrors and helpful side-window blockout.

But why is the Escape's dash so dreary and dated? Like we said earlier, it functions nigh-on perfectly with no complication or intimidation going on here, but is too simplistic and haphazardly presented in an era of space-age multi-touchscreen sophistication. Never mind Mercedes or Tesla; just look at Kia's latest efforts.

Case in point. The Ford's analogue-dial instrumentation is clear and concise – with detailed displays showing navigation, driver-assist system, digital speedometer, trip-computer, audio, Bluetooth and multimedia information – but it actually looks older and more downmarket than the previous Escape's.

Some of the hardy lower plastics look cheap – which is such a shame, because they aren't – while there are lots of small details lifting up the ambience, like the Toblerone-like door trim imprint, brushed-metal-look console surround, pin-stripe seat fabric, classy roof lining and nighttime ambient lighting.

  • The tailgate opens up high, the cavity is wide and deep, and the floor flat. (image: Byron Mathioudakis) The tailgate opens up high, the cavity is wide and deep, and the floor flat. (image: Byron Mathioudakis)
  • Though the latter is shallow. (image: Byron Mathioudakis) Though the latter is shallow. (image: Byron Mathioudakis)
  • Even though only a space-saver spare lives underneath. (image: Byron Mathioudakis) Even though only a space-saver spare lives underneath. (image: Byron Mathioudakis)

Then there are the helpful little touches to improve the Ford's functionality. Note the storage nets by the lower console, illuminated cupholders, remote window open/close, keyless entry/start, one-touch power windows all-round, locking buttons on both front doors, flocked sunglass holders, wireless phone charging, USB A and C slots front and rear, dual-zone climate-control air-con, dual 12V outlets, door bottle holders, pen and parking ticket holders, auto on/off headlights/wipers, outboard-occupant reading lights, and the overhead grab handles all round. All are very German in their thinking.

The rear doors don't open as widely as some (hello CX-5), but other than one omission, the good news keeps on coming in the unexpectedly roomy second row (offering ample space for six-footers back there as well as sufficient forward and side vision out), with every expected amenity in a mid-grade model like a GXL here in this GX-priced bargain.

For instance, the high-seat rear seats are divided into 60:40 portions, with each sliding forward substantially as well as reclining significantly for long-journey comfort, there are huge face-level air vents, charge ports, map pockets, grab handles, lighting and windows that almost drop all the way down and the reassurance of privacy glass.

Two ISOFIX latches and a trio of behind-backrest child-seat tether points are also fitted.

There are helpful little touches to improve the Ford’s functionality. (image: Byron Mathioudakis) There are helpful little touches to improve the Ford’s functionality. (image: Byron Mathioudakis)

However, while the centre-middle row is actually pretty accommodating for an average-sized adult, three burly types may find shoulder room very tight. More disappointingly, the lack of a centre armrest means there are no cupholders back there. This might be a deal breaker for some buyers.                                  

Further back, the tailgate opens up high, the cavity is wide and deep, and the floor flat, though the latter is shallow (even though only a space-saver spare lives underneath). There are remote-release handles for both backrests, another 12V outlet, cargo hooks, floor eyelets for strapping stuff down and additional underfloor storage. Capacity ranges from 556L to 1478L.

Finally, a mesh cargo cover is fitted, rising unobtrusively out the way with the tailgate. Its general flimsiness is in stark contrast to an otherwise pleasingly solid and well-made cabin. Get past the dreary and dated dashboard's looks and you'll find that much thought went into how everything works.

What are the key stats for the engine and transmission?

With the old 1.5-litre four-cylinder petrol engine dropped, the sole choice until the plug-in hybrid electric vehicle (PHEV) arrives later next year is the 2.0-litre four-pot turbo petrol.

This 1999cc double overhead cam EcoBoost unit with variable valve timing pumps out 183kW at a highish 5700rpm, and 387Nm at 3100rpm, and drives the front wheels via an eight-speed torque-converter automatic. The same transmission also serves the least-expensive all-wheel-drive model – the more overtly sporty ST-Line AWD kicking off from $40,990.

This 1999cc double overhead cam EcoBoost unit with variable valve timing pumps out 183kW at a highish 5700rpm, and 387Nm at 3100rpm. (image: Byron Mathioudakis) This 1999cc double overhead cam EcoBoost unit with variable valve timing pumps out 183kW at a highish 5700rpm, and 387Nm at 3100rpm. (image: Byron Mathioudakis)

Note that the latter has a firmer chassis tune and a 13mm ride-height drop (to 178mm).

It is unclear whether Australia will see the Escape's 1.5-litre three-cylinder turbo petrol engine offered in other markets, while it's fair to assume that no diesel is planned for the foreseeable future. A series-parallel hybrid just announced for Europe (but as yet unconfirmed for us) would be the more likely candidate, particularly in light of the Toyota RAV4 Hybrid's sensational success in this market.

How much fuel does it consume?

Necessitating 95 RON premium unleaded, our Escape FWD displayed an indicated 9.5 litres per 100km after a wide variety of driving that included performance testing, but that would most likely drop far closer to the official combined average of 8.6L/100km in more sedate urban commuting.

Fitted with a 57-litre fuel tank, the potential range averages out to be about 660km between refills. For the record, the urban figure rises to 12.6L/100km and the extra urban number drops to 6.3L/100km.

Scoring a Euro V emissions rating, the carbon dioxide emissions figure is 199 grams per kilometre.

What safety equipment is fitted? What safety rating?

Tested under the 2019 Euro NCAP crash-test regime, the latest Escape scores a top five-star ANCAP rating.

Helping achieve that score is a slew of standard driver-assist safety gear, including AEB with pedestrian and cyclist detection (day and night), RCTA, Evasive Steering Assist, Forward Collision Warning, Blind Spot Detection, Lane Departure Warning, Lane Keep Assist and adaptive cruise control with stop/go and speed limiter.

They're also joined by Traffic Sign Recognition, a Driver Impairment Monitor, Tyre Pressure Monitors and Emergency Assistance, as well as six airbags including for the driver, front passenger, front seat-mounted side airbags and side curtains.

Additionally, front and second-row seatbelt reminders are fitted, as well as two rear-seat sited ISOFIX child-seat anchorage points and a trio of child-seat tether points behind the backrest.

The AEB, by the way, works between 10km/h and 85km/h, while the lane-assistance systems operate from 30km/h to 200km/h – a speed even the base Escape is more than capable of reaching.

What does it cost to own? What warranty is offered?

Ford offers the industry-average warranty of five-years/unlimited kilometres. Services intervals are every 12 months or 15,000km.

There is also a capped-price servicing scheme under the 'Ford Service Benefits' banner, with the first four years/60,000km of 'A and B' logbook services pegged at $299 per visit.

There is also a Ford loan car program, SYNC 3 map updates and Motoring Club Membership included during that time.

What's it like to drive around town?

In terms of driver enjoyment as well as occupant comfort, the base Escape is one of the most enjoyable medium-sized SUVs on the market today. And that includes against those wearing Audi, BMW, Lexus, Mercedes-Benz and Volvo logos.

Shared with the latest Focus small car, the C2 architecture underneath is all-new for the series, and is claimed to be one of the most rigid in its class – which should mean advantages in noise suppression, handling control and steering finesse. Employing struts up front and a sophisticated multi-link independent rear-suspension system, the Escape is tuned to connect car with driver while separating passengers from the world outside.

This means the steering is sensitive and turns into corners with a sharpness that may seem quite sudden for some people at first, but is in reality easy – and enjoyable – once acclimatised. There's a natural flow to the way the Ford corners, offering confidence and control, whether darting in and out of heavy traffic or stringing together your favourite ribbon of twisty roads.

It's also obvious that the seats and suspension work in unison to cushion and isolate their occupants from bumpy roads, resulting in a comfortable and quiet ride. Yes, there is an underlying firmness over larger bumps, but given the wheel/tyre package comprises of quality Michelin 225/60R18 rubber, the Escape is smooth and relaxing to travel in.

Get past the dreary and dated dashboard’s looks and you’ll find that much thought went into how everything works. (image: Byron Mathioudakis) Get past the dreary and dated dashboard’s looks and you’ll find that much thought went into how everything works. (image: Byron Mathioudakis)

Those aforementioned luxury-branded carmakers can all learn a thing or two about how Ford tunes its SUVs with a sporty suppleness without resorting to fancy and costly adaptive dampers. That it's also so calm and composed are further bonuses.

Then there is the Escape's formidable engine performance, which is silken in feel, punchy right from the outset, and downright fast given decent amounts of throttle and a long empty road ahead.

With over 115kW per tonne, the base Escape is currently the quickest of the range, responding instantly and without hesitation, and benefitting from a fine spread of ratios to shuffle seamlessly between. Drivers can use the paddles to manually select their desired gear, but it will shift up automatically as the revs approach the red line.

We feared with so much power and torque cascading through to the front end, there might be unwanted wet-weather wheel spin and even axle tramping, but the combination of fresh, quality tyres and the clever and intricate calibration of the Escape's stability and traction control systems meant that ours tracked smoothly and without fuss. Such accomplished tuning genuinely shocked and delighted us.

There is so little to criticise here, dynamically. If a cocktail of slingshot performance, driving pleasure and premium refinement appeal to you, then the base Escape must be in your shortlist of medium SUVs to test-drive. And the longer that drive, the better.

Wow. We've long understood the Escape and its Kuga predecessors to be the overlooked over-achievers of the medium SUV set, but we weren't expecting to enjoy the base FWD as much as we did.

Far from being too expensive, we feel the high levels of standard gear make the entry-level version complete (rear-seat cupholders aside), and thus a compelling value proposition against rival equivalents. And that's before you look under the bonnet.

With rousing performance, outstanding dynamics and leading refinement, the 2021 Escape FWD rises above its pricing and positioning, to teach more expensive marques a thing or two. This is a true European crossover designed to embarrass the likes of Audi, BMW and Mercedes – never mind Volkswagen, Renault, Peugeot, Mazda and Honda.

Maybe that Aston grille and Porsche silhouette is a not-so-subtle hint of the latest medium SUV Ford's talent and intent. It's certainly one of the company's best efforts in years.

But will buyers even notice the Blue Oval's Harry Houdini of compact crossovers?

$35,990

Based on new car retail price

VIEW PRICING & SPECS

Daily driver score

4.5/5

Urban score

4.5/5