(Originally published April 4, 2019) Nearly one year after Ford announced its plans to exit the American passenger car market, the 2020 Ford Escape has landed. And with it, we get a major glimpse into just how Ford plans to sway former sedan buyers to its crossover lineup. How will the company do it? By making their most popular crossover more car like than ever. The fourth generation model represents a significant departure for the Escape. And a return to form. Sort of.
What makes the 2020 Escape so noteworthy? First off, the styling. The first generation resembled the contemporary Explorer. The second generation morphed into its own thing but retained an overall exterior that emulated its sport utility stablemates. And the third gen model bridges the gulf between a car and a truck, just like a crossover should. The new model, however, will forge a different path by bringing a much more car oriented package to the segment. It immediately brings to mind the Porsche Macan and Mazda CX-5, two vehicles that aren’t exactly known for their off-road prowess. Of course, they don’t need to be. And neither does the new Escape.
Despite the rather dramatic styling shift, the Escape retains the same relationship its had with the Focus since 2013. Like its competitors, the Escape is based on its compact sedan counterpart.
And the next generation is basically a raised hatchback variant of the Focus. Same as it ever was. The current Focus, which Americans will not be able to purchase, debuted last year on the all-new C2 platform, an architecture that Ford now brings to the Escape and one we’ll see on future vehicles.
The new model reaffirms Ford’s commitment to EcoBoost technology by exclusively offering turbocharged engines for its non-hybrid variants, an Escape first. The standard gasoline engine is the 1.5 liter “Dragon” three cylinder currently available on the new 2019 Fiesta ST available overseas. In the Escape, output is rated at 180 horsepower and 177 Ib-ft of torque, which is slightly less than the current 1.5 EcoBoost four cylinder. But Ford has compensated for that with a focus on weight reduction and the inclusion of their new eight speed automatic transmission. The new transmission is derived from the nine speed originally developed by General Motors. Ford’s newest three cylinder will also come standard with cylinder deactivation, which will enable the Escape to run on two cylinders whenever possible. Front wheel drive is standard on the 1.5, with all wheel drive available as an option. Towing is rated at up to 2000 pounds for the three cylinder.
The 2.0 liter EcoBoost four will continue to be offered as an upgrade, with its availability limited to the SEL and Titanium trims. Output is slightly higher at 250 horsepower but torque remains unchanged at 275. It’s also paired to Ford’s new eight speed automatic. The 2.0 will also enable buyers to tow up to 3,500 pounds, which is the same rating as the 2019 model. Unlike the current model, buyers will not be able to order the 2.0 with front wheel drive.
In a return to a market segment it left in 2012, Ford will once again offer a hybrid variant of the Escape. The new powertrain is a 2.5 liter Atkinson cycle gasoline engine paired to a 1.1 kWh battery that sits underneath the front passenger seat. All wheel drive will also be available for the hybrid, and unlike some competitors, the system will be mechanical instead of electric, which should enable the Escape Hybrid to retain the same four wheel capability of the gasoline models. Ford says the hybrid powertrain is rated at 198 horsepower and 153 Ib-ft of torque. It is unclear if this is an updated version of the hybrid powertrain offered in the 2012 model or an entirely new design.
In a bit of a twist, Ford will also offer a plug-in hybrid model. This model pairs the 2.5 liter four cylinder with a 14.4 kWh battery pack that enables the Escape to go 30 miles on a single charge. The plug-in is rated at 209 horsepower. Both hybrid batteries do not intrude into the rear cargo area but they do raise the rear floor a bit. They are also rated to tow 1500 pounds. All wheel drive is not available on the plug-in due to packaging restrictions for the bigger battery.
The reintroduction of the Escape Hybrid is a return to form for Ford, as the company made waves when it introduced the model for 2005. It demonstrated that an American automaker could develop fuel efficient technology on par with Toyota, which had already introduced the second generation Prius some years earlier. And for some time it was the most popular hybrid aside from the Toyota. They’re also just as reliable. Numerous publications have reported on their ability to run over half a million miles as NYC taxi cabs with minimum upkeep. When I was selling Fords, cab drivers from NYC would immediately gobble up any Escape Hybrid we put out for sale and simply pay sticker for them since it was such a great value for their line of work. I have considered buying a 2012 Escape Hybrid just to see how far it would go.
But I digress. The saga of the Escape Hybrid is also another history lesson into how the American automakers repeatedly bungled their attempts to innovate while failing to consistently produce innovative and compelling vehicles. While the C-MAX had a more successful run by about 30,000 units when compared to the original Escape Hybrid, Ford decided to devote resources to create an entirely separate hybrid nameplate that ended up not being as fuel efficient as they initially claimed. And they failed to offer an all wheel drive variant, which meant they exited a segment they created, and one where Toyota and Nissan have since entered. And Ford hasn’t really innovated with its hybrid powertrains in over seven years. The Fusion currently packs the exact same hybrid system it came equipped with back in 2012.
* also includes Rogue Sport
Misreading the market and letting fresh products grow stagnant has also impacted the current Escape. Just look at how much ground Ford’s competitors have moved since 2015. Not covered is the Chevy Equinox, which outsold the Escape last year for the first time ever. To be fair, it’s still good to be in fifth place in the compact crossover segment, but Ford blew a chance to at least maintain a position it fought hard to achieve.
When Ford introduces class exclusive features like a head-up display and a plug-in hybrid model, the company is doing it because it needs to. And the hybrid models exist because Ford needs to make up for the loss of the Fiesta, Focus, and C-MAX, three fuel efficient vehicles that helped with government fuel economy requirements.
There is another angle to the introduction of 2020 Escape and that is the “Baby Bronco” that is currently slated to be introduced by 2021. Details are scant but the above photo was taken and leaked by someone who attended a presentation Ford gave to its dealers last year. Did you wonder why the new Escape looked so different? Here is your answer. Ford has decided to essentially split the Escape into two vehicles: the on-road urban crossover that is the fourth generation model, and this new off-road oriented utility vehicle that will also use the Escape platform. It’s a notable shift in strategy, especially compared to something like the new RAV4, which explicitly went for an all-terrain vibe without any sort of separate nameplate.
Ford’s new plan of attack brings to mind the Mercury Mariner. The 2020 Escape is essentially the spiritual successor to the Mercury, while the “Baby Bronco” will potentially appeal to customers looking for a small, quasi off-road vehicle. Which is kind of what the first generation Escape represented. Of course having two separate variations of the same product didn’t help Mercury or Ford and it’s not guaranteed to work in the future, but more substantial differentiation between the two models combined with specific target demographics for each nameplate will most likely be the key to both being successful.
The first generation examples of the Ford Taurus, Focus, and Fusion all came about because Ford needed to reverse years of stagnation in their respective segments. The 2020 Escape will arrive at a similar juncture for Ford, an era that has seen the company take some drastic measures in order to cut its losses and prepare for the future. The new model will attempt to make up for the sins of the past, but it remains to be seen whether Ford will learn from its mistakes this time around. Fortunately, with the introduction of the fourth generation Escape, it seems like they’re off to a good start.