Ford Motor Co., the acknowledged king of sport/utility vehicle (SUV) sellers, is into the compact SUV segment with its all-new Escape, which goes on sale later this summer.

The Escape hasn't exactly come quickly to market. Toyota Motor Corp. put compact SUVs on the map four long years ago with the RAV4. Honda Motor Corp.'s best-seller-in-the-segment, the CR-V, was launched early in '97. The U.S.'s only domestic-nameplate vehicle is the Chevrolet Tracker.

A large part of the hold-up came from Ford's indecision about who would engineer the Escape — and in the end, it was Japanese affiliate Mazda Motor Corp. This unfathomably protracted process cost Ford (and Mazda) a couple of years in a few-incentives segment that bulged from 250,000 units in 1995 to 500,000 units last year.

So much for striking whilst the iron is hot. But in some respects, Ford and Mazda have benefitted from sitting on the bench while Honda, Toyota and a few other minor players rang the cash register.

By arriving late, Ford/Mazda were able to watch the tastes of SUV buyers evolve — and to take note of what Toyota and Honda lack.

In the matter of evolving tastes, customers are showing a disposition to let go the facade of macho off-road ability, so the Escape is sensibly built on a unibody platform rather than the antediluvian underpinnings of a leaf-sprung pickup truck. And since customers now are willing to admit they never go off-road, they expect the perplexed automaker to provide decent on-road handling, so the Escape has fully independent suspension. In fact, Keith Takasawa, Escape chief program engineer, says that's what the vehicle is all about: “The Escape customer isn't interested in a lot of truck-like capabilities. They're looking for refinement.”

As for what Honda and Toyota lack, it's simple — a V-6 engine. One of the overwhelming mysteries of today's car business is how the Japanese automakers perpetually underestimate American taste for power; yes, even in their compact SUVs.

Ford has seen that Toyota — and especially Honda — ignore the opportunity to make strong-selling vehicles into absolute juggernauts with the simple fitment of a V-6, so the Escape of course has one as the upgrade engine. It's plenty of V-6, too: 200 hp worth of 3L DOHC Duratec, when customers likely would've been satisfied with the 170-hp, 2.5L Duratec V-6.

Oh, there's a 4-cyl. entry level engine (the 130-hp, 2L DOHC Zetec), but Ford expects an overwhelming ratio of buyers to scramble for the V-6.

Meantime, there's an all-new all-wheel drive (AWD) system — dubbed Rotary Blade Coupling (RBC) — that incorporates a uniquely locking viscous coupling as the center differential. As with most AWD compact utes, normal operation is front-wheel drive, with the rear wheels drawn into the equation by the center differential only when the fronts begin to slip. The RBC unit, says Ford, was jointly developed by Ford, Mazda and Dana Corp., with Dana as the system supplier. Ford calls the system Control Trac II.

RBC's primary advantage over conventional viscous couplings is that the viscous fluid itself is employed only to engage the system; progressive torque transfer to the rear wheels is handled by clutch packs. Unique to the class, however, is a setting in which the unit can be manually locked to deliver fixed-ratio all-wheel drive.

Keeping the choices as simple as possible, here's the way Ford arranges driveline options:

  • The base Escape is a front-drive vehicle propelled by the 2L Zetec. A Mazda-designed 5-speed manual is the entry level transmission, available only with the Zetec.

  • Moving up to the V-6 means one must take the CD4E 4-speed automatic transmission.

  • The Escape with either engine can be fitted with Control Trac II. Thus, the 4-cyl. Escape can be front- or AWD, with manual or automatic transmission. Go for the V-6 and again you can have front- or AWD but you must have the automatic. Control Trac and the Duratec can be ordered as stand-alones.

The Duratec has been slightly alertered from its passenger-car duty. There's a new composite intake manifold, which Escape powertrain manager Pat Brennan says saves roughly 6 lbs. (2.7 kg). And the structural aluminum oil pan is beefed up with an extra pound (0.5 kg) of aluminum, ribbed to provide a bit more rigidity and impact protection. And the camshaft drives are improved and enhanced, a move carried over for all Duratecs.

As far as the appearance, Escape probably looks a little too much like the Nissan Motor Co. Ltd. Xterra and a lot too much like a cut-down version of the midsize Explorer. It's a clean, simple style, at least, and Ford boasts Escape's sheetmetal surrounds the best interior room in the class.

There are just two trim levels: base XLS and upscale XLT. The base XLS would hardly leave anyone feeling cheated — power everything and lots of stuff in the surprise-and-delight vein (although neither package delivers a rear seat with an armrest). Engineers are confident Escape's safety ratings will be top-drawer, too.

Pricing is attractive. The base 2L front-driver is $18,160, very competitive with Honda and Toyota's 4-banger cute-utes. A full-tilt XLT with the V-6 and Control Trac runs just $21,335 and Ford's marketing crew says you can't spend more than about 25 grand.

All Escape models — along with U.S. Mazda Tributes — will be sourced from Ford's Kansas City assembly plant in Claycomo, MS. No definitive word yet on volumes — but some Ford plant sources are whispering about a full-year run of 300,000 units, biased 75% for Escape and 25% for Tribute.

2001 Ford Escape AWD V-6

Vehicle type: Front-engine, all-wheel drive, 5-passenger, 4-door SUV
Engine: 3L (2,967 cc) DOHC V-6; aluminum block/aluminum heads
Power (SAE net): 200 hp @ 6,000 rpm
Torque: 200 lb.-ft. (271 Nm) @ 4,750 rpm
Compression ratio: 10:1
Bore × Stroke (mm): 89 × 79.5
Transmission: 4-speed automatic
Wheelbase: 103.1 ins. (262 cm)
Overall length: 173 ins. (439 cm)
Overall width: 70.1 ins. (178 cm)
Overall height: 67 ins. (170 cm)
Curb weight: 3,457 lbs. (1,568 kg)
Market competition: Chevrolet Tracker; Honda CR-V; Suzuki Grand Vitara; Toyota RAV4