Anyone looking for evidence that the SUV phenomenon is on the wane need look no farther than the arrival of two re-designed models from Ford. The Ford Focus ZXW is the station wagon version of the company's econo-compact Focus lineup; and the Escape is Ford's compact SUV entry. Both models have been substantially tweaked for 2005. In the process, Ford has managed to blur the distinctions among concepts of "sport," "utility," "car" and "truck" in one fell swoop.
Ford's most worldly vehicle is, arguably, its Focus compact car. The pedigree is American, European and Japanese, as are millions of Focus owners. For 2005, the entire Focus lineup-consisting of three-, four- and five-door models plus a wagon-has been artfully redesigned, both inside and out.
I drove a fire-engine red ZXW station wagon, and I was astounded by its easy versatility and honest-to-goodness fun. Save for a few quibbles, I consider the ZXW right up there with the Mini in the "pleasure-to-drive" category; and indeed, it's a far more realistic choice for most practical purposes.
The base motor is a spirited 2.0-liter inline-four. It revs like a bandit, and it produces 136 horsepower and 133 ft.-lbs. of torque. With the standard five-speed manual transmission, this powertrain sparkles in traffic and cruises unflustered on freeways. So eager to scoot, however, is this little twin-cam that the revs are constantly overrunning the rather gummy manual shifter. The result, more often than not, is a late shift into the sag-end of the power curve.
Nevertheless, a surprisingly trim curb weight of 2,771 lbs. contributes mightily to the ZXW's eager nimbleness. Not only does acceleration benefit from the ZXW's lightness of foot but also handling is rendered responsive and precise. Ride quality is cushy enough, resulting in some body lean during hard cornering; and yet, there's the soul of a sports car lurking within this Focus ZXW wagon.
If the ZXW's soul tends toward the sporty side, its heart is all about utility. Lurking within that five-passenger cabin is a very serviceable interior layout. Eurocar aficionados will recognize the Ford-of-Europe touch and feel of the instrumentation-last seen on these shores in the discontinued Ford Contour and Mercury Cougar models. I like the instruments' flat-panel design and their crisp "click" when put to use. It puzzles me, then, when I note others' complaints that this style of interior and instrument design isn't "American" enough. Somebody, I think, isn't getting out enough.
Cargo is the ZXW's clever little secret. With five occupants in place, there's still over 35 cu. ft. of space (i.e., two sedan trunks' worth) at your disposal. Then, when boxes take priority over people, the rear seat will flatten to reveal 74 cubes overall. If you consider that the standard roof rack allows installation of an aftermarket cargo pod holding, say, 15 additional cu. ft., this tiny-looking Focus wagon is capable of cargo-hauling feats to rival many larger SUVs and minivans.
It does so, moreover, for an as-tested price of just $20,065 and with a fuel-economy rating estimated at 25 mpg/City and 34 mpg/Highway. It seems a shame for so spirited a car to resort to a dated front disk/rear drum brake layout; and it's disingenuous to charge extra for optional antilock braking ($400) and side curtain airbags ($350) that most people want-and need-anyway. Even so, my tester had this and more and still hit the $20,000 bull's-eye almost perfectly.
In a very competitive compact sport/utility category, the Ford Escape more than holds its own. It's brawnier than, say, Honda's CR-V; yet it's better mannered and more comfortable than Jeep's Liberty. For 2005, the Escape is gussied up with some styling changes and a new 2.3-liter twin-cam base motor. The changes are good if not dramatic, and Escape surely retains a competitive edge in its category. What's odd, though, is how little it now differs from its Ford Focus sibling in many important respects.
Keep in mind that Focus and Escape share much of the same platform engineering. Indeed, Escape's 2.3-liter inline-four is available in the sporty Focus ZX4 ST sport sedan. But despite nearly equal wheelbase lengths, Escape's exterior dimensions are generally larger than Focus. Moreover, equipped with an optional four-wheel-drive system, my tester was almost 650 lbs. heavier.
So it's only natural to expect the 4WD Escape to cost more ($23,235 as-tested) and to post lesser fuel-mileage ratings (19 mpg/City, 22 mpg/Highway). But why should the sport-and-utility-oriented Escape actually turn out to be smaller and less utilitarian inside?
The numbers are perplexing: Escape's trunk space behind the rear seat is just 29.3 cu. ft. With the second row folded, total cargo capacity is just 66 cu. ft. Those deficits, compared with the Focus wagon, represent 21 percent and 11 percent less hauling capacity, respectively. What's more, the Escape's roof rack is a $40 option.
You'd think, of course, that the taller, wider Escape would boast more interior space, so the compensation must be in passenger room; but you'd be wrong. Although the Escape provides marginally more room for front seat occupants, the wagon actually boasts better backseat leg- and hip-room than the Escape.
Antilock brakes are standard on the Escape, albeit with the same disc/drum layout; yet safety-curtain head airbags remain an option ($425). Aside from any special need for all-wheel-drive, however, it's becoming clearer to me that the distinctions between Ford's compact SUV and its compact wagon are anything but clear. All the more reason, I suggest, for consumers to focus on the matter of what's really worth paying for.
5-pass., 4-door; 4WD, 2.3-liter DOHC inline-4, 153 hp/152 ft.-lbs; 4-sp. auto; 19 mpg/City, 22 mpg/Hwy w/ regular; cargo: 29.3-66.3 cu. ft.; tow: 1,500 lbs.; as-tested, w/ 4-wheel ind. suspension & disc/drum brakes, HVAC, 15-in. wheels, AM/FM/in-dash single-CD audio, safety canopy, roof rack: $23,235
5-pass., 4-door; FWD, 2.0-liter DOHC inline-4, 136 hp/133 ft.-lbs; 5-sp. manual; 25 mpg/City (est.), 34 mpg/Hwy (est.) w/ regular; cargo: 35.6-73.7 cu. ft.; tow: 1,000 lbs.; as-tested, w/ 4-wheel ind. suspension & disc/drum brakes, HVAC, 15-in. wheels, AM/FM/in-dash 6-CD/MP3 audio, fog lamps, moonroof, safety canopy, roof rack: $20,065