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Less Bounce to the Ounce

To accomplish those objectives, company engineers bent the traditional rules.

Rack and pinion steering was designed to be extra responsive and give a solid feel of the road. Instead of rear leaf springs found on many SUVs that keep rear wheel flex in tandem, Ford chose an independent rear suspension instead. That allows for greater flexibility during demanding off-road conditions. It also prevents the captive spring action developed by friction that could jolt an unsuspecting driver if pent-up pressure was released by hitting a bump in the road. In other words, less tendency to bounce.

While ambient sound is an expected part of outdoor living, Ford didn't want it invading the Escape/Tribute in more civilized settings, so it created special, sound-deadening materials to absorb offensive noise.

Leaving the Wallet Intact

In the field of SUVs that are vilified for their excessive gas consumption - just as fuel prices are settling around the $2 a gallon level throughout the states - this is more sipper than guzzler. Fuel economy ranges from an accpetable 24 to 28 miles per gallon in highway driving, depending on the powerplant.

The 3.0 liter, V-6 Duratec engine on the XLT and XLS models produces 200 horsepower and 200 foot-pounds of torque. That's adequate for driving, but not enough for towing a load. Specially adapted V-6s can tow up to 3,500 pounds. The 2.0 liter, four cylinder Zetec engine produces 130 horsepower and 135 foot-pounds of torque.

Rear compartment space was well thought out in the new Escape and its siblings, with fold-down rear seats to allow for large packages, bulkier items or maybe a snooze during an uneventful fishing trip. I wouldn't hesitate to maneuver this vehicle over fields to a secret fishing or camping spot away from the maddening crowd.

But perhaps a perception of less-than-thorough ruggedness, based on knowing what true off-roading can demand of a vehicle, isn't really fair. It hasn't had the time to chalk up a series of off-road challenges, although the lack of a transfer case for four-wheel-drive low will keep it out of the extreme sports arena.

And that perception also is based on the assumption that a true off-roader must be built on a truck frame. Ford used a strengthened unibody construction for the Escape, for a unique combination of car-like comfort befitting its expected in-town service, and truck-like ruggedness for those probable dirt road treks. That was explained in depth by company engineers during development before the Escape actually was out on the road.

No Boundaries - Almost

I didn't take the Escape to the edge of a mountain ledge to test its agility on trails meant more for a bobcat than for vehicles. I never tried to ease it up and over a giant boulder where 4X4 low is obligatory, or guide it lengthwise along a crevasse balanced more on the outside of its sidewalls than the tread underneath. Perhaps Ford would have let me put it to a more stringent off-road test if that kind of ruggedness had been considered a milestone selling point instead of a strong suggestion.

But perceived capability is only a part of its pedigree.

The Escape is a critical vehicle for Ford. As part of its "No Boundaries" fleet of sporty trucks that includes the range of "E" vehicles - Explorer, Expedition, Excursion, and Ford still hasn't run out of "E" names - it fills the remaining gap in a product area that had gone to other auto makers for far too long.

It was designed for a young, more aggressive and mobile buyer worldwide, for sale in 150 countries in all its iterations, and not just the United States where it launched last year.

In addition to the Escape sold in Australia and several other countries, a new international version, considered a middle-of-the-pack compact by world standards, just debuted and wears the Ford Maverick badge for left-hand and right-hand-drive markets.

The Whole World's a Stage

That's the same philosophy Ford had in developing its highly successful Focus automobile the company bills as "the world's most popular car," as it moves to strengthen its presence outside the U.S. Right-hand versions of the Maverick won't be built at home in Missouri, but in Ford's Hofu plant in Japan.

While the Ford Escape and Mazda Tribute were developed jointly on an all-new platform, with mainly cosmetic differences, they are aimed at different buyers. According to Ford, the typical Escape buyer will want rugged, durable and affordable transportation for an active, fun-filled lifestyle.

With the Tribute, Japan's Mazda (with a controlling interest owned by Ford), looks toward a buyer with more continental taste, international leanings and an emphasis on driving performance. Mazda's "SUV that thinks like a sports car" tagline in advertising gives a good indication of what to expect.

Maverick's slogan for the European market is equally catchy: "The 4X4 that drives like a car," citing its "car-like handling and superb maneuverability."

And Ford is looking to the future with this downsized sport utility. The company has announced it will sell a 40-mile-per-gallon hybrid electric version in two years to make it the most fuel efficient and cleanest SUV on sale.

The Escape, starting at $19,535 for the manual version including $515 destination, isn't the lowest-priced SUV in the segment. Kia's Sportage starts in the $14,500 range. But the Escape kicks the bottom out from under many competitors in terms of performance.

And remember that earlier complaint about seating comfort and that annoying little bulge under the front of those nice leather seats? It was compensated for somewhat by a sufficiently long seat track, a wise move by Ford. For if the company had considered this a woman's vehicle, it would have been "shame on them."

The Distaff Argument

I once talked to an auto executive from a Japanese competitor who gave a most sensible answer to the issue of a "woman's vehicle." And as a woman I think I can repeat it without garnering too much criticism.

"We design our vehicles and women are welcome to drive them," he said, sending some legendary auto industry "her car" mistakes into the trash heap with one quick dismissal.

That's because women don't want women's cars or trucks. They want good cars and trucks that are gutsy and fun to drive, are tantalizingly good to look at, that handle with agility, are comfortable, dependable, safe and won't cost a fortune to repair after the warranty's expired. I don't know a man with a driver's license who doesn't want the same thing.

In the case of the Escape/Mazda/Maverick package, Ford lived up to that promise. By the end of the scheduled ride, it had grown so comfortable a fit that I truly didn't want to give it back.















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