The Ford Kuga is dead! Long live the Ford Escape. Ford swears it's nothing to do with the older lady jokes we were all making, but it's retiring the Kuga name and starting afresh with its mid-size family SUV.
Not that the name ever held the Kuga back, it sold well and was building in popularity thanks to its pitch-perfect reading on what today's young urban family wants out of an SUV: comfort, practicality, safety, the ability to look over traffic, a few intelligent touches that make life easier, and a price sticker and fuel bill that doesn't break the bank.
At last week's media launch in Sydney, over a half day in the saddle, we found the Escape holds to those values nicely, while adding a couple of extra perks and becoming even more affordable.
Our test car was the top of the line Titanium edition. That means it's got the 2.0 liter EcoBoost petrol engine and intelligent AWD system, plus things like 19-in rims, Bi-Xenon auto-leveling headlights that look around the corners, keyless entry, a giant panoramic sunroof, leather-trimmed heated seats and a pumping Sony stereo system.
It's also got the full suite of Ford's latest driver assist technologies thanks to an AU$1300 Technology Pack upgrade. It parks itself, either parallel or perpendicular, you've only got to work the pedals and the gearshift. Its adaptive cruise control system maintains a safe distance from the car in front of you up to a chosen speed, all the way down to 20 km/h (18.6 mph) where you've got to take over again. That system feels like it handles new cars coming into your lane significantly more smoothly than the old Kuga did.
Its lane assist feature gently corrects your steering if it notices you drifting across a white line. Its auto emergency braking system will avoid rear-enders at up to 30 km/h if you're headed for a stationary vehicle ... heck, we tested it on loose sand and it pulled us up reliably time after time.
It'll warn you if you're backing blindly out of a park and you can't see somebody approaching from the side. It'll hold itself on a hill start and not roll back when you take your foot off the brake. The reversing camera has a pair of lines showing exactly where you're reversing to, and these lines bend when you turn the wheel. Little lights under the mirrors show you if you're about to step out into a puddle when it's dark.
It goes on and on. As part of the launch, we drove the Escape around on the beach, cornering and braking hard on the sand to feel how the stability control would gently draw you back into a corner when you began to lose grip. There's a readout view available in the menu that shows how much torque is being proportioned to each of the four wheels, and we had that thing working overtime as we drove through the surf and dared the Escape to get bogged in small sand dunes.
As a light off-roader, it does a fine job. But that's not where this segment of car shines. The Escape might wear a cowboy hat, but it's a city slicker at heart, a fact reflected by the lowest-price Ambiente specification, which is completely front wheel drive and expected to sell in droves.
The compact SUV segment is perfect for young parents, and Ford has gone to some trouble to make sure the Escape stands out in this regard. Probably the biggest sigh of relief from the parents in the room came when we learned about the back doors, which open right out to nearly 90 degrees. That lets you stick a wriggling toddler in a child seat and get the straps clicked in without the awkward bend-and-twist motion you need to do with less room.
From the kids' point of view, both outside rear seats get their own aeroplane-style fold-away tray tables, a feature my two-year-old has found disproportionately exciting in the past. That alone ought to be enough to get the thumbs-up from the back seat, but even adults won't find it too crammed back there unless you get one tall person sitting behind another.
I found this a pleasant and easy car to drive. With the two-liter petrol engine, there's a decent bit of poke behind the accelerator pedal, and while you can feel the height and weight of the Escape in a fast corner, the stability control does a good job of intervening to bring things back well under control when you go into a corner hot, even on loose surfaces.
The way the myriad gadgets and driver assist systems integrate with your driving experience is simple and natural. There's a lot of smarts going on behind the scenes, but they do their job without getting in the way.
New for 2017 is a bigger 8-inch touchscreen, that works with both Apple CarPlay and Android Auto when you've got a phone plugged in. Running Ford's new Sync 3 multimedia system, it gives you touch or voice-control access to phone, navigation, media and entertainment options. The voice recognition worked flawlessly for me the few times I tried it.
Navigation was a bit of a mixed bag. I didn't have any dramas with it, but my co-driver Lachlan found it sending him up blind back streets and taking odd detours off the freeway. That could've been because I was messing around with k-pop playlists on Spotify instead of letting him look at the map, though. Either way, if you prefer Apple or Google maps, you've got access to either of those with your phone plugged in. Waze is reportedly coming soon, which will add social alerts for cops, cameras and potholes.
All in all, we didn't find much to complain about. The Escape is comfy, solid and easy to drive across a range of road and light off-road surfaces. It's big enough to give you the SUV's eye view in traffic, but small enough to park, even if you don't let it park itself.
We'd like to see one of those top-down virtual parking representations in a future edition, because the hood's high enough to block your view when you're nudging forward. We're also not sure exactly who's going to be using the paddle shifters in a car like this, but hey, they're tucked away back behind the wheel anyway. And while the "garage door" compartment in the center console has been expanded to be a better place to leave your phone, it wouldn't close with my Pixel XL in it.
Ford is also surely not far off having a crawl assist feature, that is, adaptive cruise control that goes all the way down to a standstill and manages the pedals for you in stop-start traffic. Seeing as a car like this is going to do a lot of commuting, that functionality would make sense. Mind you, it's a tricky feature to get right.
Still, it's an intelligent, nicely finished and well-presented car for which the price tag as tested is AU$46,290 in Australia (the Titanium model starts at US$29,250 in the US, but specification levels vary wildly). That's getting into early BMW X1 territory, but remember, it's just about the top of the Escape line (you can get a 2-liter diesel variant for an extra couple of grand). The Ambiente version starts at AU$28,490 (not available in the US, where the lowest spec model is the S, starting at US$23,750), and at that price they'll make a lot of sense to a lot of buyers.
Source: Ford Australia
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