DAVE MOORE TEST DRIVE: Ford Escape - a Kuga by any other name

Dave Moore road tests the re-badged and revamped Ford Kuga, which has just become the Escape, and turns out to be the best riding and handling mid-sized SUV on the market - bar none.

The Escape nameplate was parked in New Zealand when the original Ford/Mazda joint venture SUV left our market some years ago, to make way for the Ford Kuga - a nameplate that to this day has had no real explanation (or indeed apparently anyone at Ford who is willing to accept responsibility for thinking it up, either).

Just to confuse the issue in some markets - the USA, for instance - the Escape badge never went away, so it was seen as best for Ford worldwide to adopt the old name to coincide with the extensive engineering revamp that has just taken place for Kuga II so that there’s some form of unity for what has been a global C-segment SUV product for some years. It’s hope that the Mondeo and Fusion nameplates will also enjoy some unity as they are currently attached to one and the same car, in much the same way Kuga/Escape was for so long.

In its transition from Kuga to Escape, the model gains a new entry-point front-drive version in the mid-range 1.5-litre Trend as well as refreshed styling inside and out for a distinctive look, including sleek new headlamps incorporating daytime running lights complemented by functional, stylish fog lamps, flanking a more emphatic grille which visually links the five-seat Escape with the imminent larger seven-seat Edge model - but more about that closer to its launch, says Ford - always a company to keeps its cards close to its chest.

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The Escape also offers a top five-star safety rating, and a suite of class-leading advanced driver-assist features including Dynamic Stability
Control, Rollover Mitigation, Reverse Camera and Sensors as standard throughout the range.

Ford also reports improved fuel economy for 2.0-litre models thanks to automatic start/stop as standard, and a compelling new entry-point for the range of $37,990.

Restyled taillights complete the smart exterior look while a new range of 18- and 19-inch alloy wheel designs and two new colours will also be on offer. My test car was in silver, and wore it very well.

It also wore the ravages of Christchurch’s quake-damaged roads better than any C-segment SUV I can remember, and that includes the ones with the posh German badges on them. For those like me, who have enjoyed every front and all wheel drive chassis since handling and ride whizz Richard Parry-Jones started setting the standards at Ford in the early 90s, this should be no surprise. But it is as, though the original Kuga handled better than anything else in its segment from day one, this latest iteration has taken the comfort of the car’s chassis up to another level. I couldn’t believe something could be so devoid of kick-back when riding on such sporting 19-inch rims.

So as well as cornering incisively and communicating explicitly with its driver, the Escape’s underpinnings cosset and protect its contents exceptionally well.

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Also pleasing is the dumping of the old Kuga’s Nokia-inspired communications and entertainment layout for a far more cohesive and intuitive design that will be instantly familiar to those among us who have succumbed - since the Kuga was first in our showrooms - to the wiles and technology of Apple and Galaxy. Sync 3 also appears to understand me better and it’s quite possible set-up one’s phone, sat-nav, music favourites, and contacts book, along with seating preferences within 30 seconds of sliding into the super-supportive front seat. Nice.

The Escape steering wheel and air-conditioning controls operate through fewer and more easily distinguishable buttons and switches, making the controls easier to recognise and navigate. It’s also good that a much bigger screen is now fitted for all that information, so you won’t be squinting into the deep-set, old read-out which really was rather poor.

While the driver and their front passenger have the best seats in the house, it’s pretty good out back too, with good room for three-across in the rear, for full-sized humans.

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I’ve always liked the Hands-Free Power Tailgate on the Titanium model, plus the fact that all Escapes offer up to 1603 litres of load space with the rear seats folded. Other good touches include ISOFIX child-seat anchorage-points, an electronic parking brake, improved storage in the centre console, rear tray tables on the Titanium and rear air-vents on all models.

Three engines - each with a paddle-shift six-speed automatic are offered for the Escape - A 1.5-litre EcoBoost petrol unit with 134kW/240Nm on tap and up to 7.0L economy. The 2.0-litre Ecoboost puts out 178kW/345Nm offers hot-hatch performance for the most thrills in the line-up, while a 2.0-litre turbodiesel is also on the manifest, with 132kW/400Nm and a fuel-sipping habit of just 5.4L/100km.

For all the other engine’s additional power and/or torque, there’s something elegantly sufficient about the entry-point power unit’s 1.5-litre EcoBoost, which won our engine of the year award last year. It can be had in the Fiesta and Focus models too and is the most popular Mondeo engine choice in Europe. In the Escape it shuffles sweetly through the six-speed automatic like a much larger unit.

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The Escape has three specification levels: The Ambiente 1.5 Ecoboost with FWD for $37,990 and AWD for $40,990, then comes the Trend in 1.5L FWD form at $41,990, 2.0L AWD for $44,990 and 2.0L TDCi for $46,490. The poshest Escape in the Titanium, with the 2.0L Ecoboost priced at $53,490 and the 2.0L TDCi $54,990.

Me, I’d go for the higher spec Trend 1.5L Ecoboost FWD at $41,990 - it’s the pick of the range. I’m glad Ford’s escaped from Kuga.

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