Did you hear? Gas is expensive now. So perhaps you're thinking of a smaller, more economical SUV. Ford
picked the right time, then, to enhance the powertrains of its Escape SUV, which was reskinned last year.
The biggest changes are bestowed on the Escape's four-cylinder engine, with displacement growing from 2.3 to 2.5 liters. The revised engine puts out 171 hp (up from 153). The I-4 model now makes the sprint from 0 to 60 mph in 1.7 fewer seconds, which is comparable to the outgoing V-6 Escape. The I-4 will now be available on all Escape trim levels, adding a Limited model for those seeking a more luxurious trucklet that's still easy on gas.
The 3.0-liter V-6 was not forgotten in the upgrades. While its displacement stays the same, horsepower increases by a noticeable 40 hp for a total of 240. The newfound power comes courtesy of a higher compression ratio (10.3:1), as well as new cylinder heads, cams, injectors, pistons, and intake and exhaust manifolds.
Part of the fuel economy boost is due to a new six-speed automatic transmission, offered on both the four- and six-cylinder models (a five-speed manual is still standard on four-cylinder Escapes). With two more forward ratios than the outgoing automatic, Ford expects an increase of 1 mpg on all six-speed models, despite the increased power of both engines. A taller top gear is aimed at highway cruising and contributes to the better fuel economy, while more gear choice means less hunting on hills and when passing power is needed. We had the opportunity to drive '08 and '09 models back-to-back and can confirm that the extra ratios and horsepower are a big help to what used to be a sluggish little truck.
There are also some subtle changes that help the Escape go longer between fill-ups. The air dam below the front bumper has been extended downward, and rear tire spoilers have been added. Low-rolling-resistance tires contribute to lower fuel usage, as well as a quieter ride, though the noise reduction was difficult to detect on our rain-soaked drive.
Speaking of fuel economy, hybrid Escape models will also see some changes for 2009. The gasoline portion of the hybrid powertrain gets the new 2.5-liter engine using the Atkinson combustion cycle. Revised programming helps make the transition from engine to electric motor less perceptible to drivers. A new brake pedal sensor improves feel and minimizes the sensation when going from regenerative to conventional brakes. Ford has also added a Limited trim level to hybrid Escapes.
All Escape models receive some chassis tweaks for 2009. A rear stabilizer bar reduces body roll, and ride benefits from retuned dampers. The electric power steering system, added for 2008, has been recalibrated to provide better on-center feel and reduced low-speed effort.
Though the Escape's interior was overhauled in 2008, Ford snuck in a few more changes for '09. Soft material replaces hard plastic door inserts, and the newly recontoured seats use soy-based foam, like those already found in the Mustang. But the most interesting addition is Sirius Travel Link, which comes packaged with the optional navigation system. The service offers traffic, national weather (current conditions, five-day forecast, radar, ski reports), fuel prices (sorted by distance or price, with the option of adding them as a waypoint on a trip), sports scores, and movie listings. In addition to touchscreen control, these features can be accessed while driving with voice prompts like those used on Ford's SYNC system, which is also offered on the Escape.
The 2009 Escape goes on sale this June and its Mercury twin, the Mariner, will get the same upgrades. We will also see the new 2.5-liter four-cylinder engine and revised hybrid powertrain in the 2009 Ford Fusion and Mercury Milan, which will be Ford's first sedans with a hybrid option.