The SUV is fun and well balanced with a roomy interior and good cargo capacity. For 2005, Ford's given the Escape a fresh new look with new headlamps, a brighter interior, and a base 2.3-liter four-cylinder engine available with an automatic transmission. Also new this year are a fully automatic intelligent fourwheel-drive option, a manual transmission with lighter shifting and shorter throws, and a revised suspension.

The Escape is available in XLS, XLT, and Limited models, all in either 2WD or 4WD. Our test drive was the XLT model with the Duratec 30 V6 engine and four-speed automatic O/D transmission. With 200 horses at 6,000 rpm and 193 lb-ft of torque at 4,850 rpm, I was pleased with the acceleration. The engine and transmission combo seems to work in perfect harmony, which makes for a smoother ride.

Ford seems to have a handle on safety, as well. They've added the Personal Safety System featuring passengerseat weight-sensing technology as standard equipment. The system's dualstage driver and front-passenger air bags deploy at full or partial power, depending on the severity of the frontal crash. Pretensioners tighten the seat belts in the first moments of a crash and energy-management retractors gradually slacken the belt, if necessary, to lessen the belt's force on the occupant's chest.

Occupant Classification Sensing detects when there is little or no weight on the passenger seat and switches off the air bag. Ford's Safety Canopy is also now offered on the Escape.

The vehicle's antilock brakes were smooth and responsive and Ford has added electronic brake-force distribution (EBD) and Brake Assist (assists drivers with full braking power in emergency stopping situations).

Ford substantially redesigned the interior. I liked the white-faced gages in the Escape's easy-to-see and understand instrument panel. The centerstack amenities, namely the audio system and climate controls, are angled towards the driver, which I prefer. The cabin is almost as roomy as its bigger sibling, the Explorer.

Being that I'm only 5 ft 31/2 in., sometimes it's difficult to get in and out of some SUVs. Thanks to the Escape's low doorsills and wider door openings, this wasn't an issue. The rear seats offered plenty of legroom and the rear cargo area is spacious. I had no trouble transporting four large boxes, several chafing dishes, two coolers, and a dozen two-liter pop bottles, as well as one back-seat passenger to a church hall for a party.

Our test truck also came with the No Boundaries Package, which adds allterrain tires, black painted step bars, wheel lips, painted aluminum wheels, and Class II trailer towing. Base cost for our Escape was $24,500. Add in the No Boundaries Package ($1,055), Mach AM/FM stereo with six-CD in-dash player ($565), retractable cargo cover ($75), side air canopy ($425), and delivery/destination charges ($590), and you're looking at $27,210 to drive one home. With gas prices climbing, you may also want to check out the Escape Hybrid.

— Denise Greco