Payne: Escape shows off

Henry Payne
The Detroit News

When I get a sports car to test, I want to give my motorhead friends a neck-wringing handling demo. When I get a pickup, I want to ford the Manistee and climb Sleeping Bear Dune. When I get a Ford SUV, I want to be in fifth grade again doing show-and-tell.

Check out the kick-open rear hatch. And the self-parking feature. And the hands-free calling. And rear traffic alert. Cool, right?

Well, Ford is back with its latest, 2017 Escape — and it’s time for more show-and-tell.

The Escape is where I always start in the compact crossover shopping department. Now the most popular aisle in the store, small SUVs have leapfrogged sedans as the vehicle of choice thanks to their high ride, roomy backseats and hatchback utility. Add to that Escape’s sporty platform, car-like styling, buffet of engine choices and toy store of tech-tosterone and you have the segment standard.

But in this constant crossover audition, you’ve got to scrap to stay on top as Honda, Hyundai, Kia and Toyota have all presented new products since Escape’s last act.

Does the new Ford keep its crown?

My little sister is all grown up and in the market for a family ute. I made the 400-mile road trip to Charleston, West Virginia, to get her opinion (mine too).

Escape show-and-tell actually begins with a smartphone — not the car. Everything runs on apps these days, including automobiles. Download FordPass from the Google Play store (simple) and you can fire the crossover right up. From anywhere. It’s a handy tool to have in winter when you land at, say, Metro Airport and your frigid vehicle is more suitable for freezing meat than hosting a human being.

A $30K car that remote-starts? Impressive first impression. It gets better.

Okay, sis, let’s do the exterior walkaround. It’s a handsome little devil. The third-generation 2013 Escape was one of the first crossovers to think outside the boxy shape and adopt a more car-like, streamlined figure. But as others followed, the Escape’s mug — apparently inspired by a hotel air-conditioning unit — lacked character. Ford’s mid-cycle refresh has replaced all sheet model forward of the A-pillar to finally give it the handsome, happy grille it deserves.

We climbed in and hooked up Android Auto. Ford and Toyota have lagged rivals Chevy, Honda and Hyundai in introducing apps that let your familiar smartphone take over the console — a rare misstep for the tech-savvy Blue Oval. By introducing Android and Apple Car Play in its highest-volume vehicle, Ford goes a long way to catching up with the pack.

Ford’s whiz-bang cred was quickly redeemed with a self-park demo. Futurists are wowed these days with “self-driving” features like auto-lane changing, lane-keep assist, adaptive cruise control. But for my money there is no better demonstration of auto-ficial intelligence than self-park — a feature the Escape pioneered, and that has even luxury manufacturers playing catch up.

My sister tapped the self-park icon, cruised by an empty space, then sat back as the Ford detected the opening and, well, took over.

Steering wheel possessed by unseen hands, the CUV cut backward, slotting the car perfectly into place. So bewitched was sis that she almost forgot to brake before slamming into the parked car behind us. Self-park is only semi-autonomous after all.

Show-and-tell me more. Well, of course. Return to the vehicle and it will (semi-autonomously) extract itself, too. In the tight confines of cities from Charleston to Detroit, the feature is a ding-saver (if only every parking-challenged idiot had the same ability).

I can’t speak to the MyFord Touch infotainment issues that dogged previous Escapes and drove owners to blow shotgun holes in their center consoles. So infamous was the system that Ford has put MyFord Touch in the witness protection program, never to be heard from again. The Escape boasts a SYNC infotainment update called SYNC 3, which gave us no trouble.

It’s been 15 years since the iPod revolutionized gadget design — but I still enjoy the Escape’s Pod-like infotainment controls which power the console along with attractive climate control graphics. But if the old Escape console looked like an Apple device, it forgot that we need a place to put them. The new Escape happily lifts the control stack — opening up a needed cubby for phones, money, French fries (whatever flips your switch) to go with a bottomless center storage bin that will shame many larger, midsize crossovers.

Ford lives by more than tech alone.

This is a company full of race jocks who take pride in engine development — and the Escape is in a different class with more engines choices than I have socks.

You can have any engine in a Honda CR-V as long as it’s a 185-horse, 2.4-liter inline-4. Ford offers a base 2.5-liter 4; a 1.5-liter turbo-4; a 2.0-liter turbo-4; and the 5.0-liter, flat-plane crank, 526-horsepower V-8 that comes in the Mustang GT350 (just kidding about that last one — but it doesn’t hurt to dream).

The new 2.0-liter turbo ups Escape’s already best-in-class horsepower rating to 245 — which, when bolted to Ford’s all-wheel drive system is a real stump-puller (and avoids the legendary torque steer found in the 252-horse Focus ST front-wheel driver). Despite the Ecoboost label, however, the two-oh drinks like a fish (my tester gulped 16.1 mpg under my lead foot). Fuel-conscious drivers will prefer the blown 1.5-liter which was plenty peppy scaling the West Virginia mountains — yet returned in a budget-friendly 25.1 mpg on my trip to Charley West and back.

Speaking of back, the Escape is also the rare SUV that makes the effort to fold its rear seats bone flat — making the interior configurable for a variety of objects. With your arms loaded with said objects, the Escape’s kick-gate feature is invaluable (and has been copied by exotic rides like the Audi A8 and Cadillac CT6). I’ll take issue with the new Escape’s taillights, however — formerly distinctive shards that have been squared off to make the rear look bigger.

Not big enough for my sis, though, who decided that she probably needs the space of ... hey, how about that three-row Explorer over there? That’s what Escape show-and-tell innovation does: It gets shoppers into the store.

Henry Payne is The News’ auto critic. Email: Twitter: @HenryEPayne

2017 Ford Escape

Vehicle type: Front-engine, front- or all-wheel drive, five-passenger SUV

Price: $29,995 base ($34,875 Titanium FWD and $37,515 Titanium AWD as tested)

Powerplant: 2.5-liter inline 4-cylinder; 1.5-liter turbocharged 4-cylinder; 2.0-liter turbo 4-cylinder

Power: 168 horsepower, 170 pound-feet of torque (2.5L): 179 horsepower, 177 pound-feet of torque (1.5L); 245 horsepower, 275 pound-feet of torque (2.0L)

Transmission: 6-speed automatic

Performance: Zero-60: 7.0-9.3 seconds (Car & Driver est.); 1,500-3,500-pound towing (manufacturer)

Weight: 3,552-3,765 pounds

Fuel economy: EPA 21 mpg city/28 mpg highway/24 combined (2.5L); EPA 22 mpg city/28 mpg highway/24 combined (1.5L); EPA 20 mpg city/27 mpg highway/23 combined (2.0L)

Report card

Highs: Nice nose job; tasty engine buffet

Lows: 2.0L can get thirsty; can we have the old taillights back?