2023 Ford Escape Review and Test Drive
A new and improved version of Ford’s escape pod.
More than two decades ago, the first-generation Ford Escape helped cement the popularity of compact crossover SUVs. The original Escape debuted for the 2001 model year, looking and driving like a traditional SUV, providing good passenger and cargo space, and sitting high enough off the ground to handle blizzards and light off-roading excursions.
A few years after it went on sale, a hybrid model arrived, adding efficiency to the Escape's list of talents. Ford claims the 2005 Escape was the world's first hybrid-powered SUV, and to prove its durability and utility to consumers, Ford put a fleet of them to work on the mean streets of Manhattan as New York City taxis, where they effortlessly racked up hundreds of thousands of hard miles.
2023 Ford Escape Brings New Features and Pricing
Today, the 2023 Ford Escape competes in one of the most crowded market segments in the industry — a segment it helped define. Unfortunately, the 2023 Escape is no longer one of the biggest models you can get, one of the most capable at battling extreme weather, or one of the most talented at adventuring. In addition, the 2023 Escape is no longer the only game in town if you want a hybrid SUV. And while it offers an available plug-in hybrid powertrain, the 2023 Escape Plug-in Hybrid isn't as compelling as rivals from Hyundai, Kia, and Toyota.
What happened? Ford says the 2023 Escape is for customers who don't want "a rugged and boxy-looking SUV" and refers to the Escape's interior as a "relaxing space." While some customers likely seek such traits, the approach swims against a tide of current overlanding trends that have come to define modern SUV and pickup truck designs. But, with the recent arrival of the similarly sized Ford Bronco Sport model, a boxy-looking and rugged SUV with an interior that is decidedly not a spot to relax, the automaker had no choice but to pivot with the fourth-generation Escape.
Ford makes a few changes for the 2023 model year. You might first notice the new front styling, which is more appealing to my eye than last year's model. In addition, Ford has reworked the lineup, ditching the previous trim levels for new ones. The Escape also gets new technology for 2023, including a Sync 4 infotainment system with a maximum touchscreen size of 13.2 inches and enhancements to the Ford Co-Pilot360 collection of advanced driving-assistance systems.
Those changes mean the 2023 Ford Escape comes in Base, Active, ST-Line, Platinum, and Plug-in Hybrid trim levels. Base prices range from the high $20,000s to the low $40,000s, including the destination charge to ship the SUV from the Louisville, Kentucky, factory that builds it to your local dealership.
Three sub-models exist within the ST-Line trim level: ST-Line, ST-Line Select, and ST-Line Elite. The ST-Line lineup is new for 2023, featuring sporty styling and a choice between three of the Escape's four powertrains. You can get it with a hybrid drivetrain, a turbocharged 1.5-liter three-cylinder, or a turbocharged 2.0-liter four-cylinder. All-wheel drive (AWD) is available with the hybrid and turbo three, while the turbo four comes with standard AWD. With AWD, Ford says, the ST-Line has a sport-tuned suspension.
For this Escape review, I test-drove the ST-Line Elite in Southern California. It came with extra-cost Rapid Red paint, optional black 19-inch wheels, a Premium Technology Package, and a Panoramic Vista Roof, bringing the manufacturer's suggested retail price to $43,650, including the $1,495 destination charge. Ford provided the vehicle for this Escape review, and the following data and commentary will focus on the 2023 Escape ST-Line lineup.
2023 Ford Escape Interior Design and Fittings
With the 2023 Escape ST-Line, Ford further blurs the line between a car and a crossover by eliminating the dark cladding found on the lower perimeter of the other trim levels. Only simulated front and rear skid plates remain, and the one in the back, decorated with two round exhaust outlets, doesn't look much different from what you might see on a Nissan Altima sedan.
Because the current-generation Escape's cladding wasn't convincing in the first place, I like the ST-Line's monochromatic look but not the test vehicle's black multi-spoked wheels. They're a nightmare to clean, and I'm not a fan of black wheels in the first place. If you want the trendy "coast to coast" LED light bar that connects the front headlights, you'll need to get the ST-Line Elite.
You'll find a touch-sensing version of the Ford SecuriCode keyless entry keypad embedded into the Escape's center roof pillar. The company has offered this feature for a long time and continues to, so customers must use it. Thanks to SecuriCode, you can leave all your stuff inside the Escape, including the key fob, while you run, hike, or bike and then get in using a code after your workout.
Like nearly all sport-themed vehicles, the Escape ST-Line only has a black interior. This SUV combines cloth and ActiveX, which is Ford’s artificial leather. Genuine leather is an option with Elite trim. In addition, like nearly all sport-themed vehicles, the Escape ST-Line's cabin features red stitching and accents and a flat-bottom steering wheel design. Ambient lighting is standard with Elite trim.
Dual-zone automatic climate control is standard on every ST-Line, and with Select and Elite trim, a heated steering wheel and heated front seats are standard. Every ST-Line also features a power-adjustable driver's seat, and a power-adjustable front passenger's seat is available with Select trim and standard in the ST-Line Elite. The optional Panoramic Vista Roof lightens the mood in the all-black cabin.
Glance at the Escape ST-Line Elite's interior, and you might think it is a luxurious little SUV. Ford uses soft-touch materials for the upper dashboard and front door panel surfaces, employs matte black controls and polished metallic accents, and includes diamond-stitched and perforated leather on the seats.
Unfortunately, that leather feels dry and stiff instead of soft and supple, like it will start to crack and peel within a decade. Also, many of the plastic surfaces glisten in the sunlight. While the windshield pillar trim has a texture similar to the headliner, its glossy finish draws a jarringly unfavorable contrast with the cloth covering the roof.
The control layout makes sense except for the location of the engine stop/start button. It takes the spot usually reserved for the stereo power and volume knob, which Ford relocates to a position where a radio-tuning knob is most common. Where is the tuning knob? There isn't one.
Ford renders the climate controls as a strip of virtual buttons at the bottom of the Sync 4 display screen. That's fine, except it's better to use physical control knobs for adjusting cabin temperature. On a positive note, the Escape's air conditioning works exceptionally well.
The Escape ST has a thick, sporty, flat-bottomed steering wheel that looks and feels good in your hands. Unlike the disappointing grade of leather, the front seat cushions feel soft but ultimately prove supportive. The back seat is easy to enter and exit, providing a proper seating position with good leg support, leg room, and foot room. It slides forward and back nearly six inches to add space for people or cargo, as necessary.
Storage space in front impresses, and the wireless smartphone charger doesn't take up all of the tray space on the center console forward of the shift knob and cupholders. Storage space in the back is limited, and the hollow-sounding plastic on the door panels reminds passengers of the Escape ST-Line Elite's affordable compact crossover origin story.
With ST-Line trim, the Escape has a standard power liftgate. Open it, and you'll find 37.5 cubic-feet of cargo space. That's a competitive number for the compact crossover SUV segment, and Ford shapes the space so that you can line up several full-size suitcases on their sides. In addition, the test vehicle had a grocery-bag hook, a power outlet, and storage wells on each side of the load floor to hold jugs of milk or bottles of wine. Under the load floor, there are a few small storage areas around the spare tire.
Fold the 60/40-split back seats down, and the cargo volume expands to 65.4 cu-ft, falling short of many rivals. Also, note that with the hybrid powertrain, these figures shrink to 34.4 cu-ft and 60.8 cu-ft, respectively.
2023 Ford Escape Tech Options and Driver-Assistance Abilities
Ford equips the 2023 Escape ST-Line with digital instrumentation. With ST-Line and ST-Line Select trim, it is an 8.0-inch display. A 12.3-inch display is standard in the ST-Line Elite and available with Select trim. The larger panel features well-organized data and soothing graphics (in most driving modes) and is easy to configure and adjust using the steering-wheel controls.
The digital instrumentation pairs with a next-generation Sync 4 infotainment system, which is new to the Escape for 2023. The ST-Line and ST-Line Select have an 8.0-inch touchscreen display, while the Elite has a 13.2-inch touchscreen. You can get the larger screen on the other versions of the Escape ST-Line.
Standard Sync 4 features include wireless Apple CarPlay and Android Auto connectivity, SiriusXM 360L satellite radio with a short trial subscription to service, and FordPass Connect services with access to a 4G LTE Wi-Fi hotspot. With the 13.2-inch display, Sync 4 adds a connected navigation system with a complimentary three-year subscription and Amazon Alexa compatibility. Wireless smartphone charging is available with Select trim and standard on the ST-Line Elite. You can option the Select and Elite with a 10-speaker premium sound system from Bang & Olufsen.
I like this 13.2-inch touchscreen version of Sync 4 and how Ford presents the information. On the Home page, the test vehicle showed a large navigation map to the left, smaller radio and phone windows in the middle, and three tiles stacked to the right providing access to Settings, Features, and Apps. As I mentioned, the climate-control functions live at the bottom of the display.
During the evaluation, Sync 4 did a great job responding to spoken voice commands, paired quickly with my iPhone 13 Pro, wirelessly ran Apple CarPlay, and streamed Pandora internet radio without trouble. Ford even remembered to include a Home button on the Apple CarPlay display, providing a fast and intuitive path to the native Sync 4 system.
Unfortunately, Sync 4 employs a narrow, delicate font and a washed-out color scheme, making it hard to read in bright sunlight. Also, there is some lag time between onscreen inputs and system response. The wireless smartphone charger doesn't recharge a phone quickly enough and it heated my device to an excessive temperature.
I wish I could tell you about the test vehicle's B&O sound system; unfortunately, it was damaged. Turning the volume up to a third of the maximum or beyond produced the kind of hiss and sizzle that suggests a previous driver may have blown the speakers. However, I can tell you that Bang & Olufsen sound systems are generally excellent, and those in Ford products have impressed me in the past.
My Escape test vehicle included a head-up display. However, it did not project data onto the windshield. Instead, a plastic display panel rose from the top of the dashboard, and the information appeared there instead. I suppose it is useful, but Ford's impressive 12.3-inch digital instrumentation display and its logical arrangement of information make the head-up display look old-school and seem redundant.
You can also get a 360-degree surround-view camera in the Escape ST-Line. Optional with Select trim and standard with Elite trim, the surround-view camera is helpful in all parking and maneuvering situations and includes a front camera for improved visibility when parking.
You can also add an Active Park Assist 2.0 autonomous parking system to the ST-Line Elite. It takes over the steering, transmission, acceleration, and braking to park the Escape in a parallel or perpendicular space as long as the driver sits behind the steering wheel. In addition, it includes a Park Out Assist function that can help you extract the Escape from tight parking spaces.
Ford bundles additional driving assistance systems in its Co-Pilot360 package. Standard features include forward-collision warning with pedestrian detection, automatic emergency braking, lane-departure warning, lane-keeping assist, blind-spot monitoring, rear cross-traffic alert, automatic high-beam headlights, and a driver-monitoring system. A post-collision braking system is also standard, bringing the SUV to a stop as soon as possible following a crash to limit further injury to occupants after the airbags have already deployed.
The Escape ST-Line Elite adds adaptive cruise control with stop-and-go capability, lane-centering assist, evasive-steering assist, and parking sensors. These are optional on the other ST-Line models.
My test vehicle also had something called Predictive Speed Assist. When you're coming up to a curve, this feature automatically slows the SUV down to what it deems is a safe travel speed. However, in use, it turns the Escape into a rolling traffic cone and aggravates the motorists following behind you. Worse, after the curve, when someone following behind might be of the mind to pull out and pass the Escape, the Ford speeds back up to the previously set speed. Talk about potentially sparking road rage! I pulled over and turned this function off.
Driving north on Pacific Coast Highway between Malibu and Point Mugu, the Ford Co-Pilot360 technology was inconsistent. In certain curves, the Escape seemed to want to hug the inner painted line rather than center the SUV in the lane. Where the road widened from one lane to two, the lane-centering assist wavered a bit, momentarily confused. Where two lanes converged into one, it gave up and shut off. At another point during the drive, an urgent audible and visual alert instructed me to take control because the adaptive cruise and lane-centering were no longer operational, though the reason why remained a mystery.
The tech behaved much better, ignoring exit and entrance ramps and smoothly maintaining a safe following distance to vehicles ahead. In thicker traffic, it acted in a refined and natural way, managing distance when other motorists cut into the gap ahead and braking the SUV to a stop before accelerating again.
Based on crash tests conducted by the National Highway Traffic Safety Administration, the 2023 Escape ST-Line is a safe SUV. Similarly, the Insurance Institute for Highway Safety gives the SUV its highest rating in most crash-protection assessments. However, it earns a Marginal rating in a new, updated side-impact protection test.
What It's Like to Drive the 2023 Ford Escape
Ford offers the Escape ST-Line with a choice between a turbocharged 1.5-liter three-cylinder engine (180 horsepower, 199 pound-feet of torque), a turbocharged 2.0-liter four-cylinder engine (250 horsepower, 280 lb-ft), and a hybrid powertrain based on a 2.5-liter four-cylinder engine (192 total horsepower).
My test vehicle had the turbo four, paired with an eight-speed automatic transmission and a standard AWD system with a driveline disconnect feature that helps to save fuel. I could choose between Eco, Normal, Sport, and Slippery driving modes. You'll notice there isn't an Off-Road mode — and for good reason. The Escape simply isn't that kind of SUV. However, it can tow up to 3,500 pounds with the test vehicle's powertrain.
The EPA's official fuel-economy estimates for the ST-Line Elite are 23/31/26 mpg city/highway/combined. That 26 mpg in combined driving comes in at 4 mpg less than a standard ST-Line's combined-driving mpg stats (with the turbo three-cylinder engine and front-wheel drive). Put the hybrid powertrain into your ST-Line and the SUV should get 39 mpg in combined city and highway driving. I averaged 24.1 mpg on the evaluation route, using the Normal driving mode except when changing to Sport mode for the mountain portion of the loop.
Driving the Ford Escape isn't nearly as complicated as its trim and powertrain menu. You get in, push the engine start button, twist the rotary transmission knob, and go on your way. The 2.0-liter EcoBoost four-cylinder (EcoBoost is Ford-speak for turbocharging) supplies zippy acceleration, and the eight-speed automatic transmission draws no unwanted attention to itself. Switch the SUV into Sport mode, and it instantly feels more responsive and alive, but not to the point of encouraging any shenanigans.
In addition, the Escape is nimble in town, impressively isolated when driving over imperfect pavement, and relatively quiet on the highway. The brakes feel good underfoot and can withstand some abuse while driving in the mountains, and the SUV's handling is predictable with relatively modest limits. Still, cornering grip and handling capability will likely exceed your expectations.
However, Ford needs to add a fourth ST-Line model to the roster: ST-Line Sport. That's because the steering is too slow and lifeless, and even though my ST-Line Select had what Ford calls a sport-tuned suspension, it still felt too soft and spongy.
While the suspension does an excellent job of isolating occupants from most road roughness, every once in a while, it reacts to a bump, crack, or ripple too firmly. Also, though it generally allows a hint of lateral and vertical body movement on all kinds of roads and surfaces, it can occasionally and unexpectedly firmly attenuate ride motions. There is an unpredictable dichotomy in how the ST-Line with AWD rides and handles, making it somewhat dissatisfying.
Is the 2023 Ford Escape a Good SUV?
Once a leader and innovator in its segment, the 2023 Ford Escape is now a follower. But that doesn't mean it isn't worth consideration — it offers plenty.
The 2023 Escape is blandly appealing, comfortable, safe, and technologically advanced. In addition, you can get power and performance, impressive fuel economy, or short-range electric driving, depending on your drivetrain choice. However, the Escape is smaller inside than many of its rivals, lacks off-roading capability, and can't match the quality or value demonstrated by some competitors.
The changes for 2023 make the Escape better, but whether that's good enough to cross other compact crossover SUVs off your shopping list is a decision only you can make. Twenty years ago, the Escape was one of the only models in the segment. Today, every mainstream brand offers one, and many are more compelling than the latest version of Ford's escape pod.