The compact SUV has just the right amount of truck features but with carlike handling. Introduced in 2001, I was fortunate enough then to test the Escape. With the exception of a few minor aesthetic interior and exterior tweaks, not much has changed since 2001, and that's a good thing.

Our test vehicle carried ControlTrac four-wheel drive which, if left in "Auto" mode, lets the truck decide how to parcel out torque between the front and rear wheels. The "On" setting splits torque evenly between front and rear wheels and is for driving on slippery roads and off-road. Because the roads around Cleveland were blissfully clear of snow and ice, I left ControlTrac in Auto mode.

The four-wheel-drive XLT has MacPherson struts, coil springs, and a stabilizer bar up front and a multilink independent rear suspension. The suspension helps the XLT deliver a smooth ride by soaking up pothole jolts but maintaining lateral stiffness, which keeps the rear end from skating. This, combined with power rack-and-pinion steering, makes the Escape a breeze to drive. Braking comes via four-channel ABS with electronic brake-force distribution (EBD), which is standard equipment on the XLT.

Our test vehicle also carried the optional 3.0-liter Duratec V6, which provides 201 hp at 5,900 rpm and 196 lb-ft of torque at 4,700 rpm. A four-cylinder Zetec powerplant is standard, and puts out 127 hp at 5,400 rpm and 135 lb-ft of torque at 4,500 rpm. The V6 packs enough punch to adequately power the Escape, but was a bit thirsty. With fuel prices soaring, the four cylinder is the obviously slower, but more economical choice.

An optional $900 XLT appearance package (on our test vehicle) features dark gray bumper fascias, side cladding, side-running boards, and aluminum 16-in. wheels. The side-running boards are a bit too narrow to firmly plant your foot on and would benefit from being another inch or so wider. The interior is decked out with leather seats, a power moonroof, power locks, windows, and mirrors, and an in-dash six-disc CD player. A bonus: the driver and front passenger controls for locks and windows are now illuminated, a plus when searching for them at night. The Escape is said to hold five adults with cargo comfortably. I would argue that four adults and a child is a bit more realistic. Cargo area is a roomy 33 ft3 with the rear seat up, 69 ft3 with the rear seat folded down. For safety, front and passenger air bags are standard, and our test vehicle carried optional side air bags ($345). Also, a Class II trailer-towing package ($350 option), lets you haul up to 3,500 lb. One complaint: trying to find the ignition-key slot is an adventure and doesn't get any easier by feeling around for it (a necessity at night).Base price for the Escape XLT premium 434 model is $25,015. Add on option and destination charges, and you're looking at a $27,680 bottom line.
-- Sherri Koucky