Well, it's happened. Ford Motor Co., the acknowledged king of sport/utility vehicle (SUV) sellers, is into the compact SUV segment with its all-new Escape.

Can't give Ford much credit for quick-to-market, mind you. 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.

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.

The Johnny-come-latelies 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 shamefully 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, 'tis 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 offers plenty of V-6, too: 200 hp worth of 3L DOHC Duratec, when customers likely would've been satisfied with the gesture of fitting the 2.5L Duratec V-6. A 4-cyl. entry-level engine (the 130-hp, 2L Zetec), is offered, too, 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 craftily designed viscous coupling as the center differential. The RBC unit 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. What's unique is a setting in which the unit can be manually locked to deliver fixed-ratio all-wheel drive.

Keeping the basics as simple as possible, here's the way the driveline choices stack up:

* Base Escape is front-drive, propelled by the 2L Zetec. A 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.

As far as the appearance, to our eye it looks a little too much like the Nissan Xterra and a lot too much like a cut-down Explorer. It's a clean, simple style, at least, and Ford boasts that Escape's sheetmetal surrounds the best interior room in the class.

Price, you ask? Pretty darn 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, MO. 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.

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 x Stroke (mm): 89 x 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; Mazda Tribute; Suzuki Grand Vitara; Toyota RAV4