If you were to briefly sum up the first generation Escape with a pastiche of a Gilbert & Sullivan song, it would go something like this:
I am the very model of a modern crossover utility
With a car-like ride that broadcasts utmost civility
My drivetrain is trendsetting in all things mechanical
Plus an exterior design so clean its downright puritanical
The Escape, like the Taurus and Explorer before it, arrived in a relatively new segment that already had established players. General Motors introduced the first modern front-wheel drive mid-size in 1981 with the Celebrity, several years before Ford arrived with its own competitor. The Explorer hit the streets well after Jeep introduced the unibody Cherokee.
When Ford entered the mid-size sedan and four door SUV segments, its vehicles set sizing standards that the competition would later emulate. Although the Escape never established a sizing precedent when it arrived for the 2001 model year, the compact crossover, along with its sibling the Mazda Tribute, offered a sporty ride and handling balance, and were the first crossovers from either company.
Considering the first modern crossovers were developed by Japanese automakers, the fact that Mazda was responsible for much of the engineering related to the Ford Escape should come as no surprise. That’s probably why the GF platform, which also saw use in the 626, was used instead of the setup that Ford developed for the first generation Focus, which debuted in 1998. Mazda’s sedan platform could also accommodate all-wheel drive and a V6 engine, and the 626 was available with both those things in the international market. The C170 platform didn’t have such capability.
Like a married couple sharing a toothbrush, the relationship between Ford and Mazda rested on a solid foundation of mutual cooperation and trust. It wasn’t all sunshine and lollipops though; Mazda faced serious financial difficulties which required immediate attention. While the entire world danced to the Macarena, Ford bought enough of Mazda to gain a controlling interest in the company and promptly installed one of their own as President. The ascension of Henry Wallace to the top position at Mazda marked the first time a foreign born citizen lead a Japanese company. Bringing Ford and Mazda closer together wasn’t a dramatic shift of the paradigm, although it did enhance communication between the companies to the point where a designer working for Ford could electronically share their work with Mazda almost as easily as if that designer worked within the Ford corporate structure.
This all came about in mid-1996, with Wallace quickly reorganizing Mazda in order get the company on a better financial footing. It certainly is not a great leap to attribute the creation of the Escape and Tribute to these changes in Mazda corporate governance. The timing also works out: about four years passed between Ford taking control of Mazda and the arrival of the Escape in 2000, enough time for a vehicle to be developed, especially one based on already an existing platform.
No doubt Ford and Mazda saw the RAV4 with envious eyes. Introduced in Japan in 1993, Toyota had a bit of a head start by essentially creating the compact crossover segment. Honda and Subaru weren’t far behind, introducing the CR-V and Forester by 1997. All three shared common traits: donor unibody platforms from their small car brethren, four wheel independent suspensions, and standard or available drivetrains that could send power to the rear wheels.
This was quite different from the other Ford vehicles that started with the letter “E”. The Explorer, nearing the end of its second generation in 2000, completely shrugged off the Firestone controversy until 2001. 2000 was the best-ever year for the Explorer with an eye-popping 445,157 units sold. To put that into perspective, the best selling two-row utility vehicle for 2015 was the CR-V, which moved almost exactly 100,000 less units. The Mountaineer, which could arguably be added to the Explorer’s total, moved 46,547 units, meaning the duo came very close to half a million sales.
Did many customers negotiate the price of their Explorer far below MSRP? Doubtful, which means many drivers paid about $24,230 ($33,890.o6 adjusted, $90 more expensive than its modern counterpart) for the cheapest 4 door, 4WD drive Explorer, the XL. And many drivers shelled out far more than that, as the average transaction price for Ford’s darling SUV was about $30,000, which got you into a 4WD XLT. Once again adjusting for inflation gets you pretty close to the modern counterpart, which is the Limited. The 2016 equivalent even occupies the same rung on the Explorer ladder, two slots below the top trim, and the same position held by the XLT in 2000.
Until the Escape arrived, Ford lacked a cheap SUV-like vehicle. With an MSRP of $18,185 ($25,435 adjusted, $1800 more expensive than its modern equivalent) for a base front wheel drive model, cheap might not be the best term, but it certainly was less expensive than the Explorer to the tune of about four grand. The continued discussion about inflation adjusted pricing is possibly taking up more space than it should, but consider this: that four thousand dollars translates into about $5,600 today, which is almost the exact price difference between a base model 2017 Ford Escape S (MSRP $23,600) and a base 2017 Edge SE ($28,950).
Entry level Escapes came reasonably well equipped. Niceties such as power door locks, power windows, power mirrors, remote keyless entry, ABS, air conditioning, 15 inch wheels, a rear folding bench seat, and a four speaker AM/FM cassette/CD audio system were standard on the XLS trim level. Options for the XLS included 16 inch alloy wheels and the 3.0 Duratec V6 engine. Since the 2.0 Zetec four cylinder could not be equipped with an automatic transmission or all wheel drive it goes without saying that it was the less popular variant. Mazda put the take rate of similarly equipped Tributes at ten percent.
Speaking of that Duratec, it was the same engine found in the Taurus, and in this particular application put out 201 horsepower and 196 Ibs. torque, a figure much higher than the base engine or any engine from the competition. Paired with the V6 was a four speed automatic and Ford’s Control Trac II all-wheel drive system. Essentially an updated version of the setup offered in the Explorer, the system allows the Escape to operate in front wheel drive mode until slippage is detected, where it can then send up to 100 percent of the torque to the rear wheels. Unlike a traditional 4×4 setup there is no center differential. Instead, a viscous coupling system is used, which ultimately saves weight when compared to a setup that can truly lock all four wheels.
Oddly enough, the Escape initially had a dial on the dash where you could select “Auto” and “4×4 On.” The only difference between the two was the quickness in which the all-wheel drive system engaged, with “4×4 On” being the option desired if traction was a serious concern. That setting does not permanently lock the front and rear wheels. Ford likely assumed customers looking for a vehicle with capabilities similar to the Explorer would be turned off by the all wheel drive label. In fact, they must still feel the same way, as a visit to Ford’s official website lists the current Escape as having “Intelligent 4WD” while the Lincoln MKC, which sits on the same platform and uses the same powertrain, features “Intelligent All-Wheel Drive.”
The takeaway here is that the Escape faced the very real issue of being overshadowed by the Explorer. Ford’s little trucklet partially solved this problem by pretty much becoming the Explorer, at least in looks. Seems like the designers at Ford simply put the Explorer in the microwave for about ten seconds to get that rounded look. They also made the wheel arches more prominent and added copious amounts of body cladding to the rocker panels and the front and rear bumpers. The tailgate even gained some muscle, with the area beside and below the recessed license plate housing receiving artful protrusions.
Dimensionally speaking, the Escape also did pretty well for itself. With a 70.1″ width and 69.1″ height, the Escape was .1″ thinner and about two inches taller than the second generation Explorer. Those are absolutely crucial measurements that visually minimize the deficit in wheelbase and overall length that the Escape has in comparison to the Explorer, at least from certain angles.
The interior of the Escape also put up some very competitive numbers. At 33 cubic feet, the area behind the second row was larger than the CR-V, which measured in at an even 30, despite the Honda having a slightly longer wheelbase and 4.6 inches more in total length to work with. Ford trailed the Honda in rear legroom by about a foot and cargo space with the seats down by four cubic feet.
Out on the road is where the Escape (and Tribute) really shined. Car and Driver evaluated a Duratec-equipped XLT in July 2000 and immediately fell in love. How much did they enjoy their time with the Escape?
The Escape’s relatively conventional independent suspension offers an excellent compromise between a smooth ride and crisp handling. The Escape lacks the tipsy feel and twitchy steering that have long afflicted the Explorer; that steering, although quick, never seems abrupt. The brakes, in the one-word description of tester Frank Markus, are “phenomenal.” The ABS-equipped front-disc, rear-drum binders halted the 3550-pound Escape from 70 mph in just 171 commendably undramatic feet–besting all other production SUVs we’ve tested. The last Nissan Xterra we tested took 199 feet, and we thought that was an acceptably short distance.
Right out of the gate the Escape successfully crawled out from the shadow cast by the Explorer and made up lost ground by being competitive with the models that arrived several years earlier. In 2001 the Escape beat out the CR-V to become the number one selling vehicle in its class with 164,184 units sold. The Explorer saw sales drop by 30,000 units versus its all-time high in 2000.
By 2005, the year of our featured Escape, there were a couple of tweaks to the front end, and the 2.0 was replaced with Mazda’s 2.3 four, which put out 153 horsepower and 155 Ibs. torque. There was also the addition of the Limited trim level, with niceties such as heated seats, a reverse sensing system, and the 300 watt MACH audio system with 6 CD disc changer. A floor shifter also replaced the steering column setup of earlier models.
More notably, the Escape family welcomed the Hybrid model, a first of its kind vehicle for the class and for Ford. Mercury gained an Escape variant with the Mariner, which ditched the body cladding completely and gained a more softer, luxurious appearance.
My personal experience with the first generation Escape was in junior year of high school, when my best friend at the time decided his 1997 Sable wasn’t cool enough for him. While I benefited from his fickle automotive tastes with the acquisition of the Mercury, I also became intimately familiar with the ins and outs of the four year old Escape he purchased for about $10k. The Chrome Yellow XLS with the Duratec V6 was definitely a great choice for younger drivers back in the mid-2000’s, with its good looks and ample space. And the power. Like Poe Dameron’s experience with a TIE fighter in The Force Awakens, I was surprised with how quickly the Escape got up to speed. Yeah, that thing really moved.
While the little crossover excited with its good looks and nimbleness, inside things weren’t so fantastic. Aside from the steering wheel and dashboard, Ford definitely did a little cost cutting with the door panels and window switches, both of which felt a bit cheap. The column mounted shifter became comically obtrusive once you put the thing in drive by blocking about half the audio controls for the driver. The seats were not designed for long road trips, especially the back ones, and we found this out the hard way. But none of these things mattered when the volume was turned up because the Escape’s base 80 watt, four speaker audio system absolutely rocked. This sounds like hyperbole, but Ford must have known that many younger drivers would have wanted a good stereo in their car and tuned it accordingly.
Sixteen years after the introduction of the Escape, Ford lacks a subcompact crossover and a mid-size pickup. We’ll probably see the debut of both those vehicles before the decade is out, but until then the competition has a head start on Dearborn. But if the past is any indication, those new entries will be worth the wait.