Automakers have been talking for years about breathing new life into the internal combustion engine, promising big engine power from small, efficient engines through the magic of turbocharging. Ford's offered its large Flex, Explorer, and even the F-150 with smaller-than-average turbocharged engines with varying degrees of success. Some were good; others underwhelmed.
Enter the 2014 Ford Escape SE, a midsize crossover that's been mated with an engine no larger than that which you'd find under the hood of a Ford Fiesta. Sounds like a recipe for disaster, but surprisingly, with the magic of turbocharging, it's not.
The engine isn't the aspect of this SE model where Ford has delivered more from less. We also learned that when it comes to Ford infotainment tech, sometimes the simpler dashboard package is also the best way to go.
1.6-liter EcoBoost engine
Walking up to a vehicle as big as the Escape is and then getting in and driving around for a bit, you might not believe that the engine under the hood only displaces 1.6-liters. I know didn't believe, but it does.
The Escape SE's little engine makes its 178 horsepower and 184 pound-feet of torque with the aid of turbocharging and direct injection.
Under most around-town driving conditions, the 1.6-liter doesn't behave like a turbocharged engine, that's because Ford has done a remarkable job of tuning turbo lag out of the EcoBoost's delivery. The engine just feels like a larger displacement engine, the only hint that forced induction is at play is a slight whistle that can be heard when driving with the windows open.
Helping the engine to do its thing is the six-speed automatic transmission -- the only option available on the Escape -- which always seemed to be in the right gear. Downshifts for passing happened at logical times and upshifts were smooth. I liked that though the default shift program is economy oriented, it didn't hop in to too high a gear too soon, leaving the Escape outside of its power band.
Drivers who want to drive a bit faster will be happy to learn that the Escape SE offers a manual shift program, but will be disappointed to see that the gears are selected with a rocker switch atop the shift lever, rather than with paddles or gates. Fortunately, the Escape offers a sport program that is a bit more aggressive with holding each gear higher into the power band -- where the turbo can deliver best power -- and downshifting more frequently for more responsive throttle pedal feel and slightly faster acceleration. This was the mode that I defaulted to for most of my driving.
A variant of this same engine will be found in the upcoming Ford Fiesta ST, but with output bumped to 197 horsepower and 202 pound-feet of torque. I can't wait to drive that little hot hatch, but I digress.
Escape owners who want more power have the option to step up to the Titanium trim level with its optional 2.0L EcoBoost engine, 240 horsepower, and 270 pound-feet of torque. While I'm always for more power, the 1.6L SE model feels like a good performance sweet spot for commuting, people moving, and grocery getting.
The 1.6L's slightly higher 23 city, 32 highway, and 26 combined mpg estimates for our front-wheel drive model also seem right on the money. I averaged about 24.8 mpg during our week of testing, which included quite a bit of idling during video and photo shoots and a bit of heavy-footed exploring of the performance envelope.
Speaking of the performance envelope, I was pleased with our front-drive Escape SE's handling. (An all-wheel-drive option is available, but not equipped.) The steering was responsive with good initial turn-in that makes the crossover feel pretty nimble at parking lot and city speed. Being based on the same platform as Ford's Focus, the Escape garners a lot to the same praise that's been heaped on the compact -- a controlled ride that's not too mushy, predictable amounts of grip, and a general feeling of responsive handling that automakers like to call "European tuned" in their marketing materials.
Only in the larger, elevated Escape the element of sportiness is slightly dulled. Very slightly, I feel I should emphasize. There's no beating the laws of physics, but Ford's engineers have done a good job making the Escape feel more carlike and accessible than ever. However, I did notice that the Escape feels noticeably less planted at highway speeds than its smaller platform-mate. Over rough and cracked asphalt, I could feel the vehicle seemingly moving around beneath me and twitching about, requiring lots of small corrections and concentration.
That said, the Escape wasn't as twitchy as, say, the Mazda CX-5, and certainly not as swayed by crosswinds on the freeway. On roads with a bit more space to move around in within the lane -- unlike San Francisco's sometimes cramped local highways -- drivers may not even notice the slight twitchiness, but I feel it bears mentioning.
App integration powered by Sync
We usually get cars loaded up with all of the tech packages: The last time we tested an Escape, it came loaded up with MyFord Touch and all sorts of bells and whistles. The SE trim level that arrived in the Car Tech garage came without all of that, so we were able to interact with Ford's basic level of Sync with AppLink, which is in some ways superior to the fully loaded setup.
I did my testing with an Android phone over Bluetooth connection, but the operation and results should be similar with a USB connected iPhone.
Ford Sync AppLink boasts well over 22 compatible apps just for Android and about as many for iOS. These apps add functionality such as navigation, audio playback and streaming, news broadcasts, and more to the Escape's dashboard.