By Mark Hachman
Ford calls the Ford Escape and the Ford Fusion “ground zero for the American household,” with one out of three cars it sells representing either one of those models.
In fact, it’s the best-selling SUV in America, so those looking for a mid-size car or SUV this year will most likely end up test driving one, as PCMag did for most of Monday.
What’s new? Technology innovations include a Microsoft Kinect-like hands-free liftgate, the updated Sync system with MyFord Touch, active park assist, plus the addition of a blind-spot sensor that can detect cross traffic when backing out of a parking spot. Ford has also added a 1.6-liter EcoBoost engine option, trading a bit of power for increased gas mileage.
From a driving perspective, the Escape feels sporty, both in the ride and in the handling. But the Sync voice-recognition system still leaves something to be desired. My ride partner,Time’s Harry McCracken, managed to break it several times.
The base Escape’s MSRP is $23,295 with D&D; upgrading to the Titanium package, where the new power liftgate is included, will cost $36,130.
That might not be worth it for just the liftgate itself, but it’s a nifty little addition. Assuming you have the keyfob in your pocket and the car is unlocked, simply “swiping” your foot under the rear bumper opens the rear gate, lifting it slowly up. (A pair of sensors are mounted in the bumper, one to detect the presence of the driver’s shin, with another to sense the swiping motion.) Swiping again lowers it. It’s just the thing for a family shopping expedition, where a parent’s hands might be holding packages or kids. (If you don’t have the keyfob, though, don’t bother; it won’t work.)
The Titanium package also nets you a passive entry/passive start system, remote start, a Sony stereo, which adds four more speakers, and the reverse sensing system, which sounds an audible alert when a car may potentially hit your vehicle when backing out of a parking space. That sensor is built into the blind-spot sensor (BLIS), which turns on a small yellow light on the side-view mirror when a car or other hazard is detected in the blind spot.
The Ford Escape also includes active parking assist, which I meant to try out, but couldn’t figure out how to operate. Unfortunately, Ford neglected to include a manual in the glove box, and I forgot to ask about it when returning the vehicle.
Ford touted the more aggressive styling of the Escape chassis, with swept-back headlights that tie into the fenders, et cetera. We’re not here to debate the aesthetics. Inside, however, I found the seats to be snug and comfortable, and the ride about what Ford claimed it to be: on the “sporty” edge of the spectrum.
I’ve played with Ford’s MyFord Touch telematics system before, but the ride served as a nice refresher. Ford’s Sync contains integrated maps and other services, stored on an SD card that plugs into a slot within the center console between the driver and passenger seats. Inside there’s also a pair of USB ports, as well as composite video cables for the in-dash display.
Users can sync their phone via Bluetooth, allowing the phone to serve as a modem to Sync Services, which not only downloads any preferences and phone contacts the driver has stored, but can be used to find local, updated business listings. The updated Sync also allows drivers to simply say “call John,” for example, without having to navigate through a phone menu.
Visually, I like Sync’s layout, with the four corners of the screen being used for navigation. By and large, the menus are intuitive; yes, while the layout may be a bit old-school, compared to today’s modern apps, it’s functional and very satisfactory. Although the navigation still includes the baffling list of traffic incidents that I find confusing and unnecessary, the actual map screen presents information neatly and concisely.
Ford, however, locks out the ability to enter an address manually while the car is in motion, forcing you to use voice recognition, triggered via a paddle on the steering wheel. (Frankly, there are quite a few of these random controls on the steering wheel, not all of them intuitive.)
During his turn at the wheel, McCracken ran Sync through its paces, discovering that it easily recognized Sirius stations. Sirius with a 6-month subscription is available on the second-tier SE package.
But identifying names and places, however, still remains an exercise in frustration. I can excuse not being able to find the North Bay town of “Benicia” (Buh-NEE-sha, not Buh-NISH-a) or the Argonauts Hotel, our final destination. But it even struggled to find a Target near our route. Sync also focuses its attention on the driver, so don’t expect passengers to be able to assist.
While Sync does provide some helpful prompts, it announces outright failure with a spiel that lasts a dozen seconds or so, ending with a support number and even a website to check, something that’s not really allowed at highway speeds. Even the option to spell “Argonaut Hotel” simply opened up 13 points of failure. And unfortunately, audibly entering “ARGONAUT” didn’t always bring up the associated hotel.
Other glitches included the inability to search for music stored on a phone or iPad. The Escape does allow a driver to open Pandora on his or her phone, then play it using the in-car audio system, even displaying the song and artist name on the in-dash display. This didn’t work flawlessly, however.
Probably the most amusing glitch was when I connected my Android phone via the USB cord to try and charge it. Rather than find the admittedly small number of unprotected music files stored on my phone (most are encrypted and tied to a service like MOG or Slacker) it inexplicably played 90 or so navigation prompts tied to Google Maps Navigation: “Turn right on Shattuck Avenue” played while we passed fields of sheep.
Ford’s customer satisfaction ratings fell last year, due to Sync, which Ford tried to address in the most recent update.
Speech recognition remains problematic; even innovations like Apple’s Siri aren’t universally embraced. It’s possible that a driver who takes the time to set up locations like “Grandma,” “Home,” or “Dentist” may have absolutely no problem over time. But venturing off the beaten track is the leitmotif of the Escape. And, for those who view an SUV as a more manly version of a minivan, being able to recognize “Play Wheels on the Bus” while under siege from a screaming toddler is critical to ensuring domestic tranquility.
Physically, I found no fault with the Escape, and quite enjoyed the experience.