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Ford Escape XLS 4-cylinder Test

Some obvious cost-cutting but still excellent value.

By Michael Knowling

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At a glance...

  • 2.3-litre four-cylinder
  • Struggles under load but good fuel economy
  • Automatic on-demand AWD with switchable diff lock
  • Misses out on some important interior features but....
  • Great value
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We’re more than prepared to forgive the shortcomings of the new Ford Escape XLS 4-cylinder. Sure, it does lack power and it misses out on some interior features, but with a current price of just AUD$29,990, it’s excellent value.

Based on the Mazda Tribute, the new ZB-series Ford Escape introduces a 2.3-litre four-cylinder in the entry-level XLS. (A 3.0-litre V6 is available at extra cost.) The two-point-three is essentially the same all-alloy DOHC engine as you’ll find in the Mazda 6, but it’s tuned to deliver a more conservative 201Nm torque peak at 4500 rpm and 108kW at 6000 rpm.

We know what you’re thinking - how can a medium-size 4WD cope with so little power and torque?

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Well, it helps that the Escape weighs a modest 1527kg. As a result, it performs quite adequately in urban driving – there’s decent response and useable torque. It’s only when you want to overtake on the open road, climb a hill or load ‘er up that you’re left wanting more kilowatts. The engine is also noisy when you’re trying to wring everything out of it.

The Escape is only sold as a 4-speed auto. It’s one of those column-shift jobs, which means you don’t have tiptronic-style control over the ratios. Fortunately, the trans is pretty well behaved – although it wants to drop into top gear too early. (This can be avoided by switching off the overdrive.) We also noticed a strange hesitation when the trans kicks back from second to first gear while accelerating rapidly from a slow speed.

When you get used to the decent urban driving characteristics of the 4-cylinder Escape it’s surprising to learn that it’s so slow in the 0 – 100 km/h increment. We recorded mid 13s, which is significantly slower than anything else in its class – the Hyundai Santa Fe 2.7-litre V6 manages to reach 100 km/h in around mid 11s. 

But there is an upshot to the base Escape’s 4-cylinder driveline.

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Ford claims 10.3 litres per 100km fuel consumption (ADR 81/01 standard) and we averaged 11.1 litres during our test. Considering our mix of driving, this is impressive. Note that normal unleaded is all that’s required to satisfy the engine’s 9.7:1 compression ratio. The Escape 4-cylinder also receives the same 61-litre fuel tank as the V6 versions, which means you enjoy a 550 – 600km average range.

Overall, the Escape’s four cylinder/auto trans combo is quite acceptable. If you spend most time driving in urban conditions, the lack of power is barely noticeable. On the other hand, if you regularly carry a heavy load or you spend a lot of time in hilly terrain, we’d suggest paying extra for the 3.0-litre V6 models.

Note that the 4-cylinder XLS is rated to tow up to 1000kg while the V6 version can haul up to 1600kg (with trailer brakes).

So how serious is the Escape as a recreational vehicle?

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Well, it bridges the gap between the small, weak-at-the-knees soft-roaders and the Pajero and Prados of this world. The Escape is normally a front-wheel-driver but when tyre slip is detected, up to 50 percent of torque is automatically channelled to the rear wheels. In other words, it’s a 2WD vehicle with all-paw traction only when needed. Unlike many smaller competitors, the Escape also features a switchable centre diff lock. The centre diff lock operates seamlessly and can be engaged while on the move. We tested the diff lock driving in dirt and mud and we never came remotely close to getting bogged.

The Escape’s 2620mm wheelbase gives good stability, there’s 205mm of clearance and it can manage 28.4 degree approach and 27.5 degree departure angles. Note that V6 models ride slightly higher and have a 10mm wider front and rear track. A full-size spare wheel is accessible beneath the cargo area’s false floor.

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On the road, the Escape has the awkward ride jitter that’s often associated with off-road vehicles that have a relatively high unsprung mass. This aside, the ride is firm but comfortable – a happy compromise between comfort and load carrying capacity.

With 215/70 16 Bridgestone tyres beneath it, the Escape offers decent steering response. The only criticism is the steering becomes slightly imprecise at high road speeds.

With smooth steering inputs, the Escape offers a very high level of handling. Standing on MacPherson front struts and a multi-link IRS, it does roll and pitch but the chassis remains composed. It will understeer when pushed - but not as early as some comparable vehicles. Note that there is no stability control – it’s not even an option on any of the Escape models.

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The Escape is an easy vehicle for most people to drive. All-round visibility is very good and its elevated ride height gives a useful line-of-sight advantage. But not everyone will slide behind the wheel without any problems...

Amazingly, the base Escape doesn’t have front seat height adjustment and you’re forced to sit low in relation to the dashboard and armrests. Sure, the steering wheel is angle adjustable but we never felt completely satisfied. Another gripe is that the handbrake lever is mounted on the left side of the centre console – this is very awkward to access.

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The cabin has a high roofline, which results in plenty of headroom. There’s ample space in the front and the rear and the Escape can be employed as a very roomy 4-seater or a decent 5-seater. There is no fold-out third row seat.

The rear cargo area is big and the load lip is low – but it’d be nice if the tailgate lifted slightly higher. By removing the rear headrests and tilting the bottom cushion forward, the 60/40 split rear backrest can be folded flat for extra carrying capacity. The tailgate glass can also be lifted for extra carrying flexibility and greater load access.

The Escape 4-cylinder’s overall NVH level is reasonable but the tyres are noisy on certain road surfaces and there’s a low-frequency in-cabin resonance when cruising at very low rpm. This can be avoided by switching off the overdrive.

Considering the AUD$29,990 price tag, the Escape XLS cabin is well appointed – with a few exceptions.

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Standard kit includes air conditioning, power windows and mirrors, a single CD/tuner (which sounds up to standard), remote locking, dual 12-volt outlets and cloth trim. There are also plenty of grab handles for 4WDing. The instruments get the popular white-face treatment, which works well in daylight but the green night illumination lacks contrast. The dashboard also looks very ‘90s.

The noticeably absent features are cruise control, a trip computer, map lights (a vehicle like this should have them!) and, of course, adjustable driver’s seat height.

Occupant safety is addressed with dual front airbags, seatbelt pre-tensioners, four adjustable headrests, ABS, EBD and brake assist. Unfortunately, the Escape employs old-tech drum brakes on the rear, but it still pulls up rapidly and with excellent stability – even on a loose surface. The brake assist function also triggers quite early, meaning reduced pedal effort from the very first moments of an emergency braking manoeuvrer.

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The ZB update of the Escape brings only mild styling changes. It’s nothing exciting to look at, but it does score flared wheel arches, side cladding, a high-mount brakelight, roof racks and attractively balanced proportions. Sixteen inch steel wheels come standard on the base XLS – upmarket models get alloys. The fog light blanking plates are another obvious base-model give away.

Take a look at today’s ever-expanding 4WD marketplace and you’ll discover the Ford Escape XLS 4-cylinder is almost without rival.

In terms of size, the nearest competitor is the Hyundai Sante Fe 2.7-litre V6, which retails from AUD$32,990 – nearly 10 per cent dearer than the Escape. And the Toyota Kluger? It’s way out of the price range. Even the much smaller Honda CR-V is dearer than the Ford.

Of course, we mustn’t forget the Mazda equivalent of the Escape – the base 4-cylinder Tribute. This retails for around $35k – about $5k more than the Ford version.

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Clearly, the Escape 4-cylinder is a lot of vehicle for the money.

Want More Power?

If you need more power than the 4-cylinder Escape XLS there is the option of a V6 Escape. The base-model V6 XLS comes with all the same features as found in the 4-cylinder model but boasts 150kW and 266Nm – that’s 39 percent more power and 32 percent more torque.

You’ll pay AUD$33,990 for the Ford Escape XLS V6.

The Ford Escape XLS 4-cylinder was provided for this test by Ford Australia. www.ford.com.au

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