The updated 2017 Ford Escape heads to dealerships next month boasting a mid-cycle refresh that gives this popular compact crossover SUV a bolder exterior and more user-friendly interior plus a pair of new EcoBoost engines and advanced tech touches. We spent a day driving several versions to assess how these changes will bolster appeal of the best-selling SUV in the automaker’s lineup. Although no base-level S models were on hand, we drove the SE and Limited that collectively account for nearly 90 percent of all 2017 Escape volume.

Elevating its curbside profile in a subtle but stylish way, the 2017 Escape boasts revised front/rear fascia and lighting treatments, a redrawn hood -- now made from weight-saving aluminum -- and new Canyon Ridge, White Gold and Lightning Blue finishes. Those seeking an edgier take can opt for a new Sport Appearance Package available on SE/Titanium models that features Ebony Black/Piano Black accents and upsized 19-inch Ebony Black painted alloys wrapped in 235/45 tires.

Revamped cabin

The Escape’s cabin benefits from the transformation process.  Vehicle program manager Chris Mazur notes that “Virtually every surface a customer will touch is new, in design or material.” Beyond enhanced aesthetics and the greater presence of soft surfaces, the 2017 Escape boasts a more user-friendly multifunction steering wheel -- leather-wrapped and heated in some variants -- and sees the shifter moved rearward to ease access to improved climate controls. The old lever-type parking brake also gives way to a new electronic switch that frees valuable space on a revised center console equipped with better cupholders and stow cubbies. Rounding out the changes, the Escape has a larger, more comfortable armrest, superior ventilation and a swing-bin glovebox. New USB ports—one or two, depending on trim—double the charging speed.

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On the infotainment side, the 2017 Escape becomes Ford’s first vehicle to offer the firm’s latest Sync 3 telematics package that includes support for both Apple CarPlay and Android Auto. It also introduces Sync Connect. Optional on SE but standard on Titanium models, this upgrade brings a new capacitive touchscreen and improved voice recognition while opening the door to a host of added convenience functions like remote locking/unlocking and starting as well as vehicle location. All these features use an owner’s smart device with the downloadable Ford Pass app.

Two new EcoBoost engines

Motivation for the front-drive only Escape S is unchanged for 2017 matching the 168-horsepower/2.5-liter naturally aspirated 4-cylinder with a 6-speed automatic transmission. However, that’s not the case for SE and Titanium models which are now equipped with Ford’s latest 1.5-liter EcoBoost four that makes 179 horses – one better than the 1.6-liter EcoBoost it replaces. The top engine is an enhanced 2.0-liter EcoBoost with a twin-scroll turbocharger that cranks out 245 ponies, five more than the single-scroll 2.0-liter used in 2016. Both engines now feature standard start-stop technology.  Ford claims a bump fuel economy by 4-6 percent in congested city conditions and we can confirm it cycles in a seamless manner.

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We sampled three flavors of 2017 Escape -- a front-drive SE and AWD SE with the Sport Package, both equipped with the 1.5-liter engine and a fully loaded Titanium AWD model with the 2.0-liter EcoBoost. The routes encompassed city, urban and freeway stints along with a healthy measure of serpentine two-lane canyon roads. Backed by paddle-shift 6-speed automatic transmissions with Sport mode, both EcoBoost fours revved freely and felt quite responsive—although we’d suggest anyone pondering an Escape with the intelligent AWD system seriously consider stepping up to the more potent 2.0-liter. It makes a stout 275 lb-ft of torque – 97 more of those critical twist units than the 1.5-liter which better offsets the roughly 150 pounds of extra weight. It also bumps the Escape’s max-tow rating from 2,000 to a class-leading 3,500 pounds.

Confident character

Dynamically, the 2017 Escape retains its familiar, well-sorted blend of compliance and control regardless of wheel/tire fitment. That generally confident character now can be further enhanced with new available active/passive drive assists that include adaptive cruise control with forward collision warning and brake support, lane-keeping assist/lane-keeping aid, a driver-alert system and enhanced Active Park Assist. Cargo-toting capability remains virtually unchanged for 2017, and while not to largest in class, the Escape’s extremely usable 34.0 cu. ft. rear bay can upped to 68.0 cu. ft. thanks to its easily dropped, flat-folding 60/40 seatbacks. And its large liftback that offers an available hands-free kick-under open/close feature facilitates easy loading/unloading.

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Small SUVs now command 17 percent of total annual U.S. new vehicle sales. Having tallied 306,492 units in 2015, the Escape remains in the thick of the fight with rivals like the Honda CR-V and Toyota RAV4. Looking to establish a record eight consecutive years of increasing volume, Ford revised pricing for this better-equipped 2017. While the sticker on the entry-level Escape S rises by $500 to $24,495, the high-volume SE (60+ percent) and high-end Titanium (roughly 26 percent) now start at $25,995 and $29,995 respectively, which reflect $200 and $405 decreases from 2016 models.

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