2003 Ford Escape
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by Richard Russell

It’s always interesting to revisit a vehicle after a year or more to see how it has changed in relation to the competition – which has usually passed it by.
In this case, my experience with the 2003 Ford Escape proved an eye-opener for the opposite reason – changes and enhancements to the popular compact sport ute in its second model year have allowed it to not only keep pace with the rapidly growing pack – but to forge ahead in some important areas.

The first and lasting impression is of power – lots of power whether pulling away from rest or passing on an uphill grade. The Escape’s 201-horsepower Duratec V6 gives it a distinct edge over the competition – most of which have less-powerful four-cylinder engines. And even the few with a six don’t have this much poke. The V6 Escape has a 3,500 lb. tow rating. The same all-aluminum engine can be found in a number of other Ford products from trucks to Taurus – in Mazda products and as the base for some six-cylinder Jaguars – so it has a pedigree and is deserving of the favorable impression it leaves in this application.

While the engine was the biggest eye-opener after getting back into an Escape after sampling the new competition over the past 18 months, this Ford also earned our respect for a high degree of refinement and sophistication. Most of this was due to the fact we were driving the new-for-2003 Limited model. This line-topper is priced considerably above much of the competition but if you are looking for a compact SUV and want all the added luxury features and amenities you can’t go wrong here.

2003 Ford Escape

2003 Ford Escape

2003 Ford Escape
Click image to enlarge

The Limited trim level adds content and comfort features previously unavailable in the class – items such as reverse parking sensors, exceptionally comfortable and supportive heated front seats, side airbags, automatic dimming rear view mirror, power moonroof and a six-disc in-dash CD changer audio system with self-adjusting volume controls that vary according to vehicle speed. The Limited model can also be identified by a full-set of different clothes including side cladding, fascias, moldings, door handles and unique bright, machined 16-inch aluminum wheels.

But, even if such gadgets and add-ons don’t appear on your must-have, or a willing-to-pay-for list, the V6 Escape is a pretty worthy vehicle. Ford has done a typically excellent job on interior fittings, finish, design and ergonomics. All 2003 Escapes get upgraded interior materials including seat fabrics and floor mats. The center stack, door trim and window surrounds have a new two-tone look. As indicated, the front seats are excellent. The rears are a little cramped in comparison with bigger vehicles but certainly competitive in this size and class. There is room and provision for five adults although the person in the middle of the rear will become infinitely familiar to those on either side. The drive will appreciate the use of a steering-column-mounted gearshift as it frees up a lot of space on the center console, space that is put to very good use with several large storage areas and a massive bin. The gear lever itself, however, blocks the stereo controls when in drive. The tall seating position combined with a low belt line and very deep rear window provides excellent visibility in all directions. The big, well-shaped side mirrors are a benefit in this respect as well.

The rear cargo area can be accessed by opening the top portion or all of the liftgate – a competitive advantage.

For even more space, the rear seat can be folded flat once the head restraint is removed. But it is with the back seat up where the Escape has its biggest competitive advantages. The amount of cargo space behind the second seat is greater than most in the class, although some of the others beat it with that seat folded down thanks to more clever packaging and a less bulky seat.

The base Escape is a two-wheel drive vehicle – front drive. The Limited test model comes with full-time four-wheel drive system Ford calls Control Trac. There are two settings – automatic and on. In automatic the system operates in front-drive mode, waiting for signs of wheel slippage at which point it diverts some power to the rear axle. In “On” mode, power goes to all four wheels at all times, split evenly between front and rear axles.

Four-channel ABS is standard on every Escape – kudos to Ford for recognizing the importance of this safety feature. On XLT and Limited trim levels, the system also incorporates EBD (Electronic Brake force Distribution) to ensure maximum use of the lightly laden rear brakes in panic situation. The Escape’s on-road and stopping performance are both helped by big 16-inch tires and the fact that despite its near 3,800 pound weight, it is one of the lightest vehicles in the category. With less weight perched high atop the suspension the Escape has less body roll than some competitors. However, a sports car it ain’t. Throw this thing into a corner with gusto and you will be greeted by a great deal of audible complaint form the front tires and a newfound appreciation for understeer.

One of the more interesting and useful features of the Limited model is the reverse sensing system, which warns the driver of proximity to objects when backing up. The system consists of a series of sonic senders incorporated in the rear bumper. When the transmission is in reverse the systems sounds an audible warning that increases in frequency as you get closer to the object. It switched to a continual tone when you are within a couple of inches. Very useful for close-quarter maneuvering.

The Escape and Mazda Tribute were developed and are built together. They share mechanicals and most major parts but Ford and Mazda engineers took different paths when it came to tuning the suspension and transmission shift points. Ford wanted a more relaxed and comfortable SUV in the belief the average buyer of a Ford SUV expects to spend a great deal of time on the open road. The Escape fills that bill appropriately with a roomy, comfortable, powerful and well-built compact SUV with ample off road and poor weather capability.

Technical Data: 2003 Ford Escape Limited

Base price $35,390
Price as tested $36,360
Type 4-door, 5 passenger compact SUV
Layout longitudinal front engine/part-time 4WD
Engine 3.0 litre V6, DOHC
Horsepower 201 @ 5900 rpm
Torque 196 lb-ft @ 4700 rpm
Transmission 4-speed automatic
Curb weight 1727 kg. (3800 lbs.)
Wheelbase 2619 mm (103.1 in.)
Length 4394 mm (173 in.)
Width 1781 mm (70.1 in.)
Height 1755 mm (69.1 in.)
Fuel consumption City: 13.1 l/100 km (22 mpg)
  Hwy: 9.4 l/100 km (30 mpg)
Warranty 3 yrs/60,000 km

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