2020 Ford Escape AWD 1.5 Review

Rounding off the edges.

To call the Escape the most important car Ford launches all year is an understatement.

Forget the Mustang, or all the hype around the big electric crossover that’s borrowing its name. Even the upcoming Bronco, in all its glory, can’t match up.

The Escape is Ford’s best-selling vehicle not called F-Series. It competes in the hottest segment in the whole market too: the compact crossover one. The Blue Oval absolutely needs to get this one right.

Luckily, it has. We found the new Escape largely agreeable on our first drive last year, so we spent a week with a 1.5-liter turbo, all-wheel drive SEL model to really get under its curvier skin.

The hatch on stilts

Let’s start with that new design. When it launched, it was jarring, a long cry from the boxy original Escape. For some, time has not improved matters: contributor Matthew Guy called it a “tribute to the noble lungfish.” Ouch.

SEE ALSO: 2020 Ford Escape vs 2019 Mazda CX-5 Comparison

I initially shared Matt’s opinion. Seeing the Escape in person and off a show stand though, the effect is less dramatic. In fact, I’d argue it’s too safe: it immediately blends in with traffic. The new-shape Escape looks like a hatch on stilts, and it will be interesting if that scares buyers away. If it doesn’t, that’s a win for Ford. And if it does? There will soon be a “baby Bronco” to share dealer space with it, offering a more traditional SUV shape.

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It’s worth noting that, after two decades of Toyota making the RAV4 increasingly car-like, the crossover has gone all angular and truckish with its current design. It’s also become the best-selling ride in its class. Make of that what you will.

To Ford’s credit, the design has a lower beltline, providing a larger greenhouse with better sight lines and an airier second-row experience. Measurements are slightly up over the previous model in all directions, with the most welcome being a wheelbase stretch to 106.7 inches.

Room to stretch out

The added length between the axles results in a spacious interior. Pulling out the tape measure, the Escape either beats the RAV4 and Honda CR-V in head-, leg- and shoulder room, or comes within a fraction of an inch, in either row. Thanks to that lower body, it’s also a cinch to get in and out. For families, space is king, and they’ll not feel short-changed inside the new Escape.

There is a trade-off however: prioritizing people space means less room for their stuff in the back. It’s not terrible by any means: space behind the rear seats ranges from 33.5 to 37.5 cubic feet thanks to the sliding second-row seats. Fold ’em down and you’ve got 65.4 cubes to work with, enough for a week-long family trip. That’s a significant chunk less than the 75.8 cubic feet the CR-V offers, though.

Material quality is only average. Some touches, like the dimpled door inserts, inject some much-needed personality into the cabin. A lot of what falls to hand feels a step or two down from the competition, especially the plastics of the center console. It misses the well-screwed-together feel of the CR-V or the useful, contrasting storage bins of the RAV4’s dash. At least the glove box and door panel storage bins are all huge.

The worst offender for me is the steering wheel: its leather has a texture almost identical to the dashboard’s, and it doesn’t feel much better.

SEE ALSO: First Drive: 2020 Honda CR-V Hybrid Review

Easy-to-use tech and plenty of standard safety

The Escape comes with the third-generation of Ford’s SYNC system. I appreciate its simple layout and clean design, making it easy to navigate through menus without drawing attention away from the road. It’s a clear leader over both Honda and Toyota’s infotainment offerings.

The 8.0-inch screen offers Apple CarPlay and Android Auto integration, plus Amazon Alexa. You can hook up your mobile either through a USB-C plug low in the dash or a USB-A one inside the center cubby. Surprisingly, these are the only USB plugs in the Escape, with the back row having to make do with a 12V outlet. Yet there are eight cupholders?!

Pick up a 2020 Escape and no matter the trim, there’s a full suite of assists to keep you and the family safe. Automatic high beams, blind-spot monitoring, lane-keep assist and automatic braking are all standard. I’d recommend dropping the additional $695 for Co-Pilot360 Assist, which adds embedded nav and adaptive cruise control with stop and go. For one it’s simply a good deal, and it also works well on long hauls.

The IIHS rates the Escape a Top Safety Pick in Titanium trim, thanks to that model’s LED headlights. The SEL’s halogen peepers were adequate during my night-time drives, but only that.

A punchy base engine

My SEL came with the smaller 1.5-liter turbo engine and all-wheel drive, producing 181 hp and 190 lb-ft. Those that want more power can opt for a 250 hp, 280 lb-ft 2.0-liter mill. Both come with an eight-speed auto, and front-wheel drive is also an option. There’s a front-drive-only hybrid model too, with 200 hp and the promise of 40 mpg.

As the engine most owners will experience, the 1.5-liter three-cylinder is largely good. It’s a little grumbly at lower revs, but it throws down with far more oomph than its paltry on-paper numbers suggest. In the mid-range, enough of the triple’s character makes it to the cabin to almost suggest the Escape can be—whisper it—a little fun.

Ford quotes a 3,474 lb curb weight for the AWD 1.5-liter, less than the previous car. So the Escape is lower to the ground, lighter, and the platform is stiffer. It’s about as far from a race car as I am to an athlete, but the Escape is competent and confidence-inspiring. That sure-footedness doesn’t sacrifice comfort either, with a cushy highway ride that soaks up bumps with aplomb. It does feel surprisingly susceptible to crosswinds though, and the flat driver’s seat makes me feel like I’m sitting on the Escape instead of in.

The three-pot’s strong performance doesn’t come at a cost at the pumps either, at least during our time together. I netted an average of 32.6 mpg over the week, split roughly 50/50 between city and highway. That’s not just better than the EPA combined claim of 28 mpg, it’s more sippy than the 31 mpg highway rating. The EPA quotes 26 mpg for city use. It’s also better than the last gas-powered RAV4 I drove, though that was the off-road-oriented TRD model.

SEE ALSO: 2020 Toyota RAV4 TRD Off-Road Review

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Verdict: 2020 Ford Escape AWD 1.5 Review

The 2020 Ford Escape offers a curious counter-point to the segment. It’s technically part of the crossover crew, but it’s now more car-like than ever, and more so than other rivals too. It brings the benefits of that traditional layout—improved road manners, better gas mileage, less weight—while still offering the amount of utility modern buyers demand.

The compact crossover segment might be stronger than ever, but Ford’s bread-and-butter model offers strong value, plenty of passenger space, a host of standard safety features and the right amount of tech. The new Escape is well positioned to move back up the sales charts.