The mid-size SUV segment is an immensely popular one in Australia – last year, three of the top five best-selling SUVs were mid-sizers, and SUVs as a whole accounted for nearly half of all new vehicles sold – yet it’s one that Ford hasn’t exactly made the biggest splash in over the past few years despite the brand’s strong roots in our market.
That’s why the company will naturally be wanting to make a big splash with its all-new 2021 Escape which landed just as the slow-selling Endura bowed out of its Australian lineup after less than two years.
Going head-to-head with the ever-popular Toyota RAV4 and Mazda CX-5, the Escape certainly has its work cut out for it against this stiff competition – especially when you consider that there’s no sub-$30k entry-level model in the range.
Rather, the range opens at $35,990 with a more comprehensively-spec’d base model, before stepping up to $37,990 for the ST-Line model, and $46,590 for the top-spec Vignale. All-wheel drive is a $3000 option on the latter two, while the ST-Line is also available as a plug-in hybrid for the costly sum of $52,490.
As such, the ST-Line AWD version tested here starts at $40,990, although this particular example was fitted with the sole $1950 option pack, placing it right in the middle of the range price-wise at $42,940.
Grabbing that option pack is a smart move, I reckon, as it really does make what is already a well-equipped vehicle feel properly premium, given it adds in an automatic tailgate, head-up display (although only one projected onto a flip-up screen), heated front seats, a heated steering wheel, and adaptive LED headlights for what is a pretty fair price.
That all joins a strong list of standard equipment that includes an 8.0-inch touchscreen infotainment system with satellite navigation and smartphone mirroring for both Apple and Android, DAB+ digital radio, a wireless phone charger, push-button start and remote start, a 12.3-inch digital instrument cluster, and adaptive cruise control with Level 2 semi-autonomous driving capability.
There are a few odd spec omissions to contend with, though, such as a power-operated driver’s seat (although this is included on the ST-Line PHEV) or even a rear centre armrest which seems most unusual in an SUV like this.
The interior materials are a bit of a mixed bag, too. Although I’m a big fan of the cloth seats with red contrast stitching and the perforated leather-wrapped steering wheel, some of the interior plastics do feel pretty low-rent, it must be said, while the paddle shifters on the back of the steering wheel are much too small to really be of any use. Regardless, it’s a roomy cabin and fine for eating up motorway miles in.
One thing that helps justify the Escape’s high entry-level price, however, is the standard engine fitted to practically every model in the range – a 2.0-litre turbocharged four-cylinder petrol unit that develops a healthy 183kW and 387Nm, which is backed by an eight-speed torque converter automatic transmission.
While both front-wheel drive and all-wheel drive configurations are available, it’s worth spending the extra three-grand for the latter, as with this much power on tap it’s easy to tell that it’d overwhelm the front wheels if they were left handling it all. There’s admittedly still some tugging at the wheel as you power out of tighter corners with the all-wheel drive system, but for the most part – and for the average driver – it’ll feel perfectly surefooted.
As a quick side note, the ST-Line PHEV model is front-wheel drive only, and features a 2.5-litre Atkinson-cycle four-pot petrol engine paired with an electric motor and 14.4kWh battery pack to produce 167kW and allow for 50km of pure electric driving. For the fuel-conscious and environmentally-conscious folks out there, this will be the one you want – especially as the 2.0-litre turbo showed quite the thirst for premium unleaded during my testing, drinking 9.9L/100km over the course of my 485km behind the wheel, although when stuck in traffic that number nudged north of 12L/100km.
Thirst for fuel aside, it’s a good little engine with plenty of top end power on tap – more, even, than the punchy Mazda CX-5 Turbo – and it remains smooth and hushed even when you really pedal it. Sure, it could do with more low-end torque as the bulk of it doesn’t come on until 3100rpm, but as it loves to be revved it’ll appeal to those after a sporty engine to match the ST-Line’s sporting pretensions.
The eight-speed ‘SelectShift’ transmission is a bit of a weak link, however, as although it shifts relatively smoothly and promptly, the spacing of its gear ratios isn’t as progressive as you’d like. With second being a 3.31 ratio and third being 3.01, pulling on the upshift paddle makes it feel as though nothing’s happened and you’ll end up missing fourth, and as a result it makes you wonder why it isn’t just a seven-speed with third ditched all together.
What is impressive is the ST-Line featuring a unique sports suspension tune not found on other models in the range, and although some journalists have complained about it being too harsh, I didn’t find that to be the case. Yes, there’s some firmness to it, but it’s far from uncomfortable and does a decent job of helping the Escape remain decently balanced through the bends.
Unfortunately, the steering is the ultimate Achilles’ heel of the Escape and what lets it down the most. Feeling devoid of connection between the front wheels and the tiller, it comes across as artificial, and how heavy – if flat and planted – the car feels through the bends only compounds the problem.
It’s a shame that the Escape feels a little unrefined around the edges, as the bones of a good car are all there. Other blue oval models like the Puma show that the company knows how to make an SUV that’s a great drive, and with just a bit of polish this really could give the class-leaders a run for their money.
Steeper pricing, a five-year warranty that simply matches their offerings, and a brand name not quite so prevalent in the class means I’m not sure how many will opt for this over one of the bigger sellers, but those who do I think will find themselves rewarded with what is one of the punchier and sportier options the segment has to offer.
2021 Ford Escape ST-Line AWD List Price: $40,990 | As Tested: $42,940
Pros: Plenty of power on tap from the standard turbo engine, roomy interior, impressive semi-autonomous driving system, $1950 option pack is money well spend and helps it feel decently premium
Cons: Disconnected steering feel, mixed-bag interior trim, some odd spec omissions, AWD commands a steep premium but feels to be a necessity
In a nutshell: While the Escape ST-Line does impress with its punchy performance, overall sporty vibe, and strong list of features, a lack of refinement around the edges and steeper entry-point pricing compared to the competition is what ultimately lets it down a notch.
Full Disclosure: The vehicle tested here was provided by Ford Australia for one week with a full tank of fuel. All additional fuel costs were covered by the author.