MANjr writer Jeremy Johnson takes the 2017 Ford Escape to Joshua Tree, CA

The desert has a way of putting you in your place. One step out of our press fleet Ford Escape and the hot air stuck to my face like the oven door was open. I was stunned by the sudden shift from a dual climate controlled cocoon to the bone dry desert air and took a moment to get my bearings. The Mojave desert is definitely not Los Angeles. The barren moonscape is dotted with mystical rock piles and joshua trees straight out of a Dr Seuss book. With red tailed hawks circling overhead, we departed the electronic influence of civilization, flipped on the satellite radio and cranked the AC. Our peaceful retreat to the desert had begun, and with it our test of the 2017 Ford Escape was underway.

The Briefing

Though still a flagship vehicle for Ford (306,492 sold in 2015) the Ford Escape is under heavy fire from competitors at home and abroad. It’s not hard to see why the compact SUV segment is in such demand, the size and accessibility offers a little bit of everything for everyone. Increased competition by automakers has resulted in an arms race of features and comfort, traditionally found in more luxurious brands. This one-upmanship helped get us to the 2017 model year, where Ford has focused on refreshing the design of the Escape, offering new engine sizes, a tightened up exterior, and a more upscale and open interior.

We gave the Escape a fair shake, asking it to perform in many varied terrains. It delivered.

The Look

From the front, the Escape benefits from some minor tweaks. The trapezoidal grill and headlights are framed in chrome while the air intakes and fog lamps have a more subdued finish. Side panels follow two clear lines with slightly concave door panels and gray matte rocker panels run the length of the doors. Up top the Escape pinches smoothly towards the back and manages to appear aerodynamic without losing all of its aggressive notes. The rear finishes with strength in the corners and a broad shouldered roofline. The 2017 refresh ends all comparisons to older Explorers and latches firmly on to the styling embraced by the newer Explorer and Edge models.

The Interior

Clearly a lot of attention paid here. The gear shifter has been moved back and the traditional pull parking brake has been replaced with an electronic model, opening up the center console for two cup holders and device storage. The arm rest is wide and useful and the instrument panel remains simple and clearly laid out. Nearly all surfaces have been refreshed with more high end materials and the cabin succeeds in offering a more open and useful space. The two rows of seating offer enough to comfortably seat four full size adults and the split fold 60/40 rear seats give an already substantial cargo area in the rear more than double the space. We packed a 3 night weekend, including groceries, with room to spare and the back seats upright. Plenty of space for glamping and play dates alike.

The Drive

My favorite part. In city driving, the Escape showed off it’s car chassis and modest size with a smooth ride and easy parking. The optional Parallel Park Assist and Adaptive Cruise Control offer more than a glimpse of self driving technology to great success. Swinging into a perpendicular spot between two cars was a breeze, the added height of the driver’s seat position combined with the slightly tapered nose gave great visibility in and out of tight spots. Mostly seamless automatic start and stop helped save fuel mileage (20 city, 27 highway) and the constantly monitoring blind spot indicators helped keep an extra eye on adjacent lanes. Out on the open road the 2.0L turbocharged engine flashed enough power to overtake semis and commuters with ease and managed little to no turbo lag. The 6 speed automatic transmission shifts smoothly through it’s paces and a “Sport” setting offers the option of paddle shifters and a more responsive throttle. We spent most of our time in the sport mode, where the Escape was able to showcase it’s relatively nimble handling and effective acceleration in turns and straightaways. Ford’s claims of best in class handling may be up for debate but the 2017 Escape showed an athleticism rarely found in the Small Crossover SUV marketplace. Out of the city and off of the road, the optional 4WD proved very capable in loose sand and gravel across the California Desert. There was little to no backslide and when encouraged to do so, the Escape found its nose and continued on with little oversteer at all.

The Finish Line

The 2017 Escape grew on me the more we asked it to do. It is an exceptionally useful vehicle, combining practicality with some premium touches to offer a definite upgrade of years past. 2017 seems to be a year where Ford addresses some of their critics biggest complaints by fixing the infotainment system and focusing heavily on more upscale interiors. The Ford Escape starts at $23,600 and tops out fully loaded at just over $38k.

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