Second Place: 2013 Ford Escape SE

Like the CX-5, the Escape is brand new for 2013, and represents a dramatic change of direction. New foundations, adapted from the front-wheel drive Ford Focus. And a decidedly new look, slick and contemporary, replacing the blocky, truckish look of the previous generation.

Also like the CX-5, the Escape's new chassis was the starting point for a very agile dynamic profile -- prompt responses in quick maneuvers, good control of body motions. The electric power steering system isn't quite as informative and precise as the Mazda's, but the driver involvement and gratification is nevertheless a plus.

However, though it's similar in size -- toward the smaller end of the compact crossover scale -- and in its contemporary good looks, the Escape has a bigger menu of choices for prospective buyers than its Mazda contemporary. For example, it offers three 4-cylinder engine options, two of them turbocharged (EcoBoost): a 2.5-liter (168 horsepower, 170 lb-ft of torque, naturally aspirated), an EcoBoost 2.0-liter (240 horsepower, 270 lb-ft), and an EcoBoost 1.6-liter (178 horsepower, 184 lb-ft).

The 1.6-liter is new to the U.S. market, and powered our Escape tester. All three engines are paired with the same 6-speed automatic transmission, but 4-wheel drive is offered only with the turbocharged versions. Like most of our test fleet, this Escape was a front-driver. And like the Equinox, an Escape equipped with the most powerful engine option is rated to tow up to 3,500 pounds.

The 1.6 didn't get rave reviews from everyone involved -- there were comments about hints of turbo lag before the engine got into the sweet spot of its powerband, and a little too much noise when it was working hard. However, the 1.6 gets good EPA fuel economy numbers -- 23 mpg city/33 highway -- and delivered generally respectable performance measured against the other contestants in this derby.

And there's always the option of the EcoBoost 2.0-liter for power mongers.

Though the Escape ranks next-to-last in this group for interior volume -- only the CX-5 has less -- that volume embraces a very attractive interior, with sporty front seats that are a match for the Mazda's and snazzy instrument and control graphics that lend splashes of electronic color to the dashboard.

There's also a surprising amount of cargo capacity -- over 34 cubic feet behind the rear seatbacks and over 68 cubic feet with the rear seats folded down. However, that rearmost cargo hold compromises rear-seat legroom a bit, and the swoopy roofline limits rear headroom, especially when the Escape is equipped with the optional Panorama double power sunroof ($1,395), present on our test vehicle.

Like all new Fords coming along these days, the Escape's secondary controls included Sync infotainment and the updated version of the MyFord Touch system, augmented by voice command. Though improved, the latter still provoked some test crew grumbling about having to jab the electronic buttons more than once to achieve the desired result, as well as a little wistful wishing for a good old-fashioned rotary knob or two.

The Escape's passive safety features are on par with the times, including plenty of airbags (front, driver's knee, side and side-curtain), and Blind Spot Information System (BLIS), which flashes a light on the side mirror when another vehicle is nearby in a parallel lane.

Base pricing for a new Escape is competitive, but injudicious option-shopping can run the tally up quite rapidly. Our SE tester, second of four trim levels (S, SE, SEL, Titanium) carried a base price of $25,895. The moonroof added $1,395, navigation system another $1,570, and a perimeter alarm system tacked on $440, for an as-tested total of $29,345, a competitive price for an attractive vehicle.

The Escape is good to look at, entertaining to drive, and attractive within. There are caveats. Though braking performance seemed strong, there were reports of slightly mushy pedal feel. Curb weights are mystifyingly high for a relatively small crossover SUV -- over 3,500 pounds for this tester, according to Ford, more than 200 pounds heftier than the CX-5 -- and ride quality can be a little too stiff on patchy pavement.

But if the Escape gives something away to the Honda CR-V in terms of refinement, it's clearly a stronger rival than ever before.



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