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Ford's new little brother SUV

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That solved the initial problem. But would it live up to the rest of its billing?

Neither version was in an eye-catching crayonbox color such as the caution sign yellow that looms out from the pack. But the vehicle still caught glances - and brought questions - just the same.

A turn in its cousin Mazda Tribute version proved equally satisfying. It was a little more refined for a different audience, with an emphasis on comfort and vehicle performance. That's something Will Boddie, Ford's Global Core Engineering Vice President referred to as a vehicle's "DNA," so that designed-in differences reflect the ultimate buyer.

To Each its Own

"A Mazda Tribute needs significantly different ride and handling characteristics than the Ford Escape, consistent with the Mazda brand," he said.

Both the Escape and Tribute versions were joys to handle. The gutsiest V-6 engine available in an SUV has plenty of power. It's a welcome addition, since this engine only comes with an automatic transmission. One can compensate somewhat with shifting for the rather underpowered four cylinder stick shift version.

Ford's rack and pinion steering gives precise control and enhances a sense of contact with the road. It seemed well balanced and had a sense of security on wet pavement, and was so solid during cornering under normal driving conditions that it didn't raise any concerns about stability.

The vehicle has the flexibility of being mostly front-wheel-drive, but more
pavement-gripping torque is automatically distributed to the rear wheels on models equipped with a Control Trac II system if wheels begin to slip. That control system locks into place when needed for constant four-wheel drive, allowing all four wheels to distribute driving force evenly.

The vehicle was light and agile and rode high enough to have the greater sight line of an SUV so traffic jams up ahead could be avoided. Both versions hit a home run with styling, giving the Escape in particular a look of no-nonsense strength without seeming bulky in the process.

The Missing Link

Ford was a latecomer to the smallest of the sport utility fields (subcompact by American standards). After all, the company has owned both the volume pickup truck and midsize sport utility titles for years with its F-series pickups and Explorer/Mountaineer SUVs.

But competition from such companies as Japan's Toyota with its kicky little RAV 4, Honda with its car-based CR-V, or even South Korea's Kia with its low-cost Sportage couldn't be ignored.

Ford, which was rumored to be interested in buying out Kia at one time, got this first downsized, four-door SUV on the market as a 2001 model just as Toyota was launching its second generation RAV 4. But the wait was well spent in development of a vehicle Ford expects to become a world-wide best seller.

To start, the company decided exactly where the Escape should fit in the growing landscape of SUV competitors. It needed to be tough, agile and forgiving of abuse. But at the same time it needed to master a smooth ride, offer comfort and easy handling during city driving, be economical to drive and repair, and tolerate only a minimum of noise. That's no small task for any auto maker.

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