2006 Ford Escape XLT 4WD Sport

Intelligent and down to earth

Funk & Wagnalls defines "escape" as "to get free from confinement, restraint or capture," so it's a great name for a vehicle "geared to active, 'young at heart' drivers and first-time SUV buyers." And Ford's Escape leads the increasingly competitive small SUV segment against the likes of Toyota's RAV4, Honda's CR-V, Hyundai's Tucson and Chevrolet's Equinox.

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The Escape offers buyers a choice of 12 configurations in XLS, XLT, XLT Sport and Limited trims. An upgrade and mild restyle for 2005 added new headlamps, fog lamps, front and rear fascias, 15- and 16-inch aluminum wheels and a new honeycomb grille. For 2006, there are three new clearcoat metallic colors, Titanium Green, Dark Stone, and Blazing Copper, and the economical 2.3-liter Duratec 4-cylinder engine becomes available on XLT models.

The enhanced interior has a standard flow-through console, floor-mounted shifter, bolder-looking gauges, unique storage spaces and stylish seat cushions and fabrics. As before, the liftgate incorporates a convenient flip-up rear window for easy cargo area access.

The 2.3-liter Duratec 23 4-cylinder, nicely smoothed by a balance shaft and good for 153 hp and 152 lb.-ft. of torque, is standard issue. It's smoother at idle than earlier versions thanks to new engine mounts and gives quicker part-throttle response due to a new powertrain computer. The standard 5-speed manual transmission benefits with lighter shifting efforts and shorter throws, and a 4-speed automatic is available with the four. The also-upgraded 200-hp Duratec 30 V-6-optional on base Escape and XLT, standard on Limited-is among the most powerful engines in the compact SUV class.

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Escape is available with standard front- or available four-wheel-drive. Its new computer-controlled automatic Intelligent 4WD System gives traction and stability with smooth, fuel-efficient operation, even in slippery conditions. It drives the front wheels until additional traction is needed, then seamlessly and barely noticeably engages the rears. Vibration-absorbing engine mounts, large front shocks, and a front stabilizer system absorb road impacts without detracting from Escape's nimble feel.

Those willing to pay about $3,300 extra for higher efficiency (36 mpg city/31 hwy vs. 20 city/25 hwy for a V-6 FWD conventional model) can opt for the Escape Hybrid, which is powered by a modified Duratec four coupled to an electric motor to deliver high economy and low emissions with V-6-like performance and full SUV capabilities.

The base Escape XLS pairs the 2.3-liter four with standard 5-speed manual or optional 4-speed automatic, along with 15-inch styled steel wheels, 4-wheel ABS, molded-in-color grey front and rear fascias and body cladding, power windows and door locks, mirrors, remote keyless entry, black roof side rails, AM/FM/single CD player (MP3 and satellite capable), low back cloth front bucket seats, 60/40 split rear seat, air conditioning, center console with two cup holders, dual visors with covered vanity mirrors, cargo floor hooks and SecuriLockr Passive Anti-Theft System. The interior sports import-like stalk and wiper controls, quality look and feel rotary HVAC dials and easy-to-operate audio controls.

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The mid-range XLT gets 16-inch aluminum wheels, fog lamps, roof rack with two horizontal bars, privacy glass, steering wheel mounted speed controls, 6-disc in-dash CD player, premium cloth seats, power 6-way driver's seat, floor mats and a perimeter alarm. Our test XLT Sport was dressed with 16-inch bright, machined aluminum wheels and 16-inch All Season OWL tires, black step bars and painted Dark Shadow Grey fascia, bodyside cladding and wheel-lip moldings. The 60/40 split second-row seats folded down (not-quite-flat) quickly and easily, without consulting the manual, to maximize the cargo floor. It was surprisingly agile and fun to drive given its 4WD SUV capabilities, and the V-6 was quick and lively, if a trifle rough at full throttle.

Top-of-the-line Limited models wear a monochromatic look with body-color door and liftgate handles, fascias and bodyside cladding, leather trimmed seating surfaces, overhead console with dual storage bins, message center and dual illuminated vanity mirrors. Major options include a Luxury Comfort package, Class II towing prep package, and moonroof.

The Personal Safety System which customizes the deployment of the dual-stage front airbags includes the Front-Passenger Sensing System is built into every Escape. Adjustable head restraints and 3-point safety belts are standard at all seating positions, while an optional Safety Package adds front side air bags and a Safety CanopyTM rollover protection system. 4-Wheel Anti-lock Brake System (ABS) is standard for 2006, and 4-wheel discs are now standard on V-6 4WD models.

With 2006 prices starting just under $20,000, the compact Escape provides an excellent affordable and economical alternative to Ford's larger Freestyle and new-for-2006 Explorer SUVs. (www.fordvehicles.com)

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