Most people have ignored the small SUV segment because it was ubiquitous with cramped, underpowered drones. Then with vehicles like the CR-V, they became carlike, but underpowered drones. Now that the Ford Escape is here, I think for families who mostly have less than 5 people in a car should not need any more SUV than this one!
First off, this thing does haul!
The V6, although it doesn't have the sweetest sound, goes. You press on the accelerator, and you haul off. Even when you've got a full car with luggage, it's never short on power. One of my friends who also owned a CR-V claimed that it merely wasted gas. Actually, the Escape manages about 22 City, and 27 highway (mpg)! That's pretty darn good, and it's a Low Emissions Vehicle. So there you go.
The reason I purchased this vehicle was that I constantly make trips through less-than-beaten paths. Although I would not go rock-hopping in this vehicle, it's wonderfully competent at tackling muddy, snowy, and dusty paths that a Front wheel drive car would most certainly not make it on.
The four wheel drive system is pretty brainless... "Auto," or "On." The Auto mode is like the CR-V's... once wheelspin is detected, the rear wheels kick in. The "On" mode is kind of like All wheel drive, suitable for when you're driving on an unplowed road up a steep hill. There's no low range.
If you're going to be tackling some bad trails, It's a good idea to change the tires... the ones that come with the Escape like asphalt, and it makes a whopping difference.
The interior is comfortable, and for the 2002 model year they introduced adjustable front headrests. The interior in my Escape is clad in "Leatherette", and a cloth that reminds me of a mix between those rip-proof-last-forever sofas, and a cloth backpack. But it's comfortable, and the seats hold you in around the curves. Some people have criticized the interior of the Escape, saying it looks "Cheap." Well, I'm not a fan of these new plastic dashboards, but the molding grain Ford used gets my thumbs up. The interior was kind of drab-ish bland, so I purchased a satin Nickel trim peice, and that really jazzed up the interior. The gauges are black-on-white, which certainly adds to the "sport" part of it.
The rear seat is perfect. 2 adults or 3 kids will fit in the back just fine. 3 adults will fit if necessary, too. The rear seat is high up, so the rear passengers have a nice view and tend to get less car sick, and there's plenty of head-foot-knee room, too.
Cargo capability is also excellent. We've manage to pack in 4 suitcases plus our assorted junk and have been able to load it in the Escape and not have the rear window obscured. (Taking out the rear cargo cover helps make this possible.)
Handling - The Escape feels like a car. The steering is perfect... not to light or heavy, and very precise. It goes around curves predictably with little pitch and roll. I should also mention the Escape stops VERY well... even without ABS.
Problems - None so far. The dealership is friendly, and despite how many people say the Escape MUST have terrible reliability because of all of it's recalls (it was rushed out onto the market, remember), it's actualy one very reliable vehicle, especially for a Ford! It still feels as screwed together after 23,000 miles as it did when I purchased it, and I've driven the snot out of this car. Also, none of the recalls have affected my car or involved it.
Compared to my last car, a 1997 CR-V (which was decent... if underpowered transportation), the Escape to me seems like the perfect vehicle. It's fun to drive, secure in the rough stuff, and eco-friendly enough to quell any guilt about SUV's.