Motornet: Suburban Commando
Ford has weighed into the mini Sport's Utility Vehicle segment with the new Escape. But is it a case of more bark than bite with this aggressive looking newcomer?
What on earth could be more frustrating than standing outside a clothes 'boutique' waiting for your female companions to 'browse' while a brand new 4WD sits patiently waiting for some well-deserved attention?
It was a question I was asking myself over Easter weekend as I soaked up the sun in pleasant Martinborough, while cursing under my breath at the ever decreasing light and wondering what time boutiques in this town closed their doors!
Hanging around - regardless of how pleasant the street - wasn't what I had in mind when I first planned this trip. In fact, I had literally planned to escape the city for the weekend, and not to any form of boutique 'gazing.' At close to $48K the Ford Escape slots into the higher priced range of sub-sized off-roaders. Not so big as to be impossible to manoeuvre around a supermarket carpark, but imposing enough to have the desired psychological effect on purchasers. But what sets the Escape apart from its many competitors is its 'look at me, I'm a real 4WD' styling - not to mention its impressive V6 engine.
Despite being smaller in size than its big brother the Explorer, the Escape has a significant road presence. The top of the range XLT press car came equipped with noticeable extras such as running boards and rear spoiler, but even without these extras, the car looks every part the capable off-roader.
The fact that Ford estimate only 2 percent of purchasers will head off the tarmac is somewhat beside the point - especially when you consider that with sales success, perception and reality are often the same thing.
But it's what's under the bonnet that most people will find especially attractive. Unlike many of its similar sized 2.0 litre competitors, the Escape packs a 3.0 litre duratec quad cam V6 engine. The motor produces 150kw and develops 266Nm of torque at 4700rpm - all of which leads to a very responsive and desirable power plant. A healthy stab of the right boot will not only produce good acceleration (for a 4WD) but also a marvellous, throaty and full sounding engine note. NZ Autocar reckon the Escape can do 0-100 in 10.5 seconds, which is not that dissimilar to the performance figures of many medium sized sedans. Keep in mind too that the Escape is no lightweight either.
So it has a great engine and it looks the part, but how does it go on the rough stuff? As it happened, it would take a while to find out....
For a couple of days I had happily tooled around town enjoying the superiority that all drivers who eyeball bus drivers enjoy. The cabin is functional, if a little bland, and has a real 'born in the USA' feel. Not only that, but the stalk mounted transmission is definitely an acquired taste. For a day or two I frequently knocked the overdrive button when changing gears. It wasn't until I started treating the gear stick like a gear stick instead of an indicator that I got the hang of it. Those of us who have fond memories of the bench-seat Falcon 500's may enjoy getting back to their roots.... the rest will find they soon learn to live with the transmission lever's foibles. Fortunately, the transmission itself is competent, and while frequent manual gear changes are off the menu, the power of the V6 means being caught short without enough grunt is never an issue.
Overall comfort is excellent. The equipment list on the XLT is extensive, and not bad for the cheaper XLS ($45,500). You'll find cruise control, a 4-speaker stereo with six stacker CD handily mounted on the lower dash, remote central locking and alarm, requisite electrics, very powerful manual air con not to mention ABS brakes and twin airbags. Good-looking 16" alloys finish the package. You'll even find a few cup holders... though not as many as I expected frankly! The tan cloth upholstery is again 'American' but is of a good quality and makes for a pleasant looking interior.
The supportive seats came to the fore when cornering hard. Having successfully rounded up the troops and finally having left Wellington (only two hours after schedule, to cries of 'we must have sushi before we leave!') I was enjoying the handling capabilities of the Escape on the Upper Hutt Valley's notorious Rimutaka Hill. Yes, the suspension could be a little firmer but generally the softer ride has not compromised handling. I was expecting to roll in and out of corners, but nothing of the sort. Over eagerness when exiting a corner is easily corrected by applying judicious amounts of power via the right foot.
My enthusiasm was tempered by calls from the backseat. It seems a number of my passengers had enjoyed a little too much vino the night before and were not in the mood to experience my driving prowess.
By the bottom of the hill, I was equally impressed at how responsive the brakes had been. Brake fade is not uncommon - even for modern cars - after the Rimutaka's but there was no sign of it in the Escape.
And then we got to Featherston. It was then that I realised I had been duped. I was merely the chauffeur, a simple pawn in a grand scheme of the girls' to visit antique shops and art galleries and odd little emporiums (that really do sell some strange things) - all in the comfort and style of a brand new 4WD. Which is why, some hours later and a number of rustic towns down the track, I found myself cooling my heels outside that clothes boutique. It was the mention of a stop for coffee that spurred me to action. 'We have to get to the coast,’ I cried. ‘I need to take pictures. You know, before it gets dark!' I said, slightly flabbergasted. The girls were bewildered. How could this be more important than coffee? But they soon saw my point of view when I threatened to leave them behind.
So we found ourselves flying toward the coast. It was almost reminiscent of a scene from Bram Stoker's Dracula - 'We must make the castle before nightfall!' Luckily for me, the Escape is a good open road cruiser - maintaining pace even when the mostly straight Wairarapa roads turned twisty. Safely passing slower vehicles is aided by the V6 and the vehicle managed to track straight and true even when the roads narrowed alarmingly. The girls gasped in awe as we crested a hill that finally revealed the spectacular coastline. Although I had been hoping for dramatic crashing surf, even on a tranquil autumn day this, the southern most part of the North Island, really does take your breath away. In light of our new surroundings, it was the girls who were now insisting on stopping for photos!
With just under half an hour of daylight remaining, we decided to press on to Ngawhi, a tiny fishing village about five kilometres short of Cape Palliser lighthouse. While much of the road is tar seal, parts are gravel and dirt. The Escape is 2WD in day to day driving situations, relying on Ford's Control Trac II system to apply more power to the required wheels when slippage is encountered. And while the system works admirably, I felt more comfortable locking in the 4WD via the dash-mounted button once we hit the rough stuff. On the loose gravel, the Escape felt relaxed and confident. We were able to travel at reasonable speeds without feeling we were pushing the vehicle's capabilities in anyway.
Spotting a great photo op just off the track I piled on the brakes and headed into the unknown. It wasn't the unknown really. Just a crop of rocks and grass bordering the road and the beach. Even so, there were a couple of challenges for the Escape. Clearance wasn't an issue over the rocks, but I did get the feeling as we bounced along that if you wanted to do anything much more full on than this, you might want to re-think the Escape approach. Needless to say, I decided not to venture far on to the damp sand, conscious that the Escape's road tyres might fail us - getting stuck really wasn't on the agenda.
Pressing on, we made Ngawhi in time to witness a truly remarkable sunset. Ngawhi itself is a lonely little place with big fishing boats pulled high up on the beach and rusting tractors lined up in rows that do nothing more than go back and forth assisting the boats to go in and out of the water. While I put the digital camera to good use, the girls found a pink tractor that took their fancy and that provided a useful photo backdrop. Darkness came quickly after that and with little more to see in this slightly surreal town, we got back on the road.
Had we decided to stay the night, the canvas 'director's chair' in the boot would probably have come in handy. As part of the Escape concept, Ford offer ‘No Boundaries’ packs which include everything from ski racks and awnings to tents. Customers can load up their Escape as they like on purchase.
I was a bit nervous that petrol would be an issue as the gauge dropped alarmingly on the way back. I needn't have worried as we had plenty but the price you pay for a 4WD with a V6 is definitely felt at the pumps. Ford estimate that on a city cycle the Escape uses 13 litres for every 100km travelled, and eight for every 100km on the highway. I managed about 400km from a full tank (61 litre capacity) before the petrol light blinked on, during a mixed cycle and after reasonable use of the throttle. Under 7km/litre is not great but I suspect could be improved on through more conservative driving.
An hour later, we were enjoying a great meal in a Martinborough cafe. Around us, the town filled with locals and visitors alike - many coming to town to watch the Hurricane's match on Sky. Mostly they drove 4WDs - everything from Toyota Hilux's to Landrover Discoverys. The Escape looked right at home.
It strikes me that the Wairarapa is a great place for the Escape. It might not be quite the real thing as far as 4WD's go, but unless you really want to 'bush bash' it gets the job done. And sometimes, it's important to fit in with the locals - whether you’re checking out their coastline or just sampling their clothing merchandise.
Specifications - Ford Escape XLT
Engine - Six cylinder, 3.0 litre Duratec quadcam with electronic fuel injected motor producing 150kw at 5900rpm
Performance - 0-100km/h: 10.5 seconds (NZ Autocar)
Transmission - Four speed automatic transmission
Suspension - Macpherson struts front with independent rear suspension
Tyres - P 215/70 R16 tyres
Kerb weight - 2041 kg (Automatic)