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Escape is great for escapes

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I escaped to St. George last week in a 2001 Ford Escape and returned home convinced that Ford has a winner with its new entry in the small sport-utility segment heretofore dominated by the Honda CR-V, Toyota RAV4, Chevrolet Tracker and Suzuki Grand Vitara, among others.

I had initially told my three golfing buddies to be prepared to lash their clubs to the Escape's roof rack and avoid eating a large meal before we set out, expecting Ford's new mini-SUV to be a tight fit for four adults, their luggage and all the paraphernalia required for three days on the links.

Imagine our joy when all four golf bags, and a half-dozen assorted suitcases fit nicely in the cargo area without blocking my view out the rear window, and the two guys in the back seat had as much head, hip and knee room as they would in many full-size sedans.

I didn't share with them until we were on our way home that this particular vehicle was shod with Firestone Wilderness HT tires because golf is nerve-wracking enough without wondering if the treads were going to head for Kanab while we made our way to St. George at 75 mph. (Actually, the P235/7orX16 all-season tires on my Escape tester are not among the specific group of Firestone Wilderness tires recalled or deemed dangerous by the feds.)

It's nothing short of magical how Ford has managed to create so much interior space in an SUV that seems so (relatively) small on the outside and handles so nimbly in traffic and parking lots while also acquitting itself well in cross-country freeway driving. Oddly, I've been in Explorers and Expeditions (the Escape's older and bigger brothers) that felt more confining that the Escape. Quite a feat.

But it's the Escape's ability to literally run away from its competitors that really sets it apart, particularly when powered by the 3.0-liter, 200-horsepower Duratec V6 found in my tester, a $1,480 option (a 130-horse, 2.0-liter 4-cylinder is standard) that allows this SUV to zip to 60 mph in under 9 seconds and tow up to 3,500 pounds of boat or trailer — more than triple my wife's Honda CR-V.

However, all things are not equal in the small sport-ute segment, Take price, for instance. We paid under $20,000 for our Honda but I doubt that many Escapes will go out the door for much less than $25,000.

In theory, you can buy an Escape for $18,160 for the XLS series powered by the four-banger, a manual shifter, and front-wheel drive.

But I suspect most Escape buyers are going to opt for the XLT 4X4, my test vehicle, that starts at $20,820 and includes a nice list of standard equipment, including AC; power windows, mirrors and locks; tilt steering and remote keyless entry.

Add in the $1,480 V6 engine, running boards for $275 (which are not needed in this relatively low SUV and actually make it more difficult to get in and out); $870 for the "Comfort Group" (power driver's seat, leather trim on the seats, leather steering wheel and overhead console); $505 for a CD sound system; $345 for side airbags, $515 in delivery charges, a couple of other items and you have a bottom line of $25,085.

Obviously, if you can forgo those $6,000 in upgrades, you can own an Escape for below $20K, but my bet is that not many will go that route, and I doubt you'll find many of those low-end models on dealer lots. There's not much profit in them, and few buyers want them anyway. Even small-car buyers like their creature comforts.

The Escape with the V6 has a fuel economy rating of 18 mpg in city driving and 24 mpg on the highway, pretty decent for a vehicle of this class.

Incidentally, for those of you who like the Escape but for whatever reason are wedded to imports, you can buy the same vehicle at Mazda dealers. They call it the Tribute.

You may have discerned from all of the above that the new Escape is more "carlike" than "trucklike." That's because it's built using unibody construction, like a car, and not body-on-frame, like a truck. The former gives you a smoother ride and the latter can take more punishment in off-road driving.

But few of us actually go off road in our SUVs. We buy them for their macho image and their ability to navigate a snowy commute, not traverse the Kalahari, so the more they drive and handle like a car, the better.

The 4X4 Escape has a four-wheel-drive system, called Control Trac II. It offers two modes, activated by turning a small knob on the instrument panel. On AUTO 4X4 mode, the vehicle operates only in front-wheel drive until the front tires start to slip. At that point, the system transfers power proportionally to the rear wheels (up to 100 percent if the computers deem it necessary) until everything's back in order.

The other mode, 4X4 ON, does pretty much the same thing but transfers the power to the rear wheels faster. There is no low-range transfer case or any way to lock the differentials for serious off-roading but, as noted, this vehicle isn't aimed at that (small) market segment anyway.


E-mail: max@desnews.com