The 2020 Ford Escape is the Blue Oval’s make-or-break family car

2020 Ford Escape 3/4 front

What’s the best-selling Ford passenger vehicle in America? Everybody knows the answer to that question—the F-Series!—because it’s also the answer to “What’s the best-selling passenger vehicle in America, period, point blank?” Let’s try a tougher one. What’s the second best-selling Ford passenger vehicle?

The answer to that question has traditionally served as a reliable barometer of the automotive zeitgeist. It was “Fairmont/LTD” through the 1970s and ’80s, then it was “Taurus,” then it became “Explorer.”

Today, it is “Escape.” Hard to believe, right? The unassuming little wagon began as an afterthought take on the contemporaneous Mazda 626, clad in Millennial-Ford jellybean anonymity and frequently sporting a sad pair of matte-grey bumpers which gave the Escape’s face a look of deep and abiding sorrow. It seemed born to be a used car and resembled nothing so much as a Renault Twingo upsized for American freeways.

Yet it was the right car at the right time, a CR-V competitor available from hometown dealerships and frequently priced at the bleeding edge of affordability. An ambitious styling job for the third generation promoted the Escape from “basic transportation” to “mildly desirable,” but the old one had already broken the quarter-million annual sales mark. It’s now cruising at 300K per year, which puts it comfortably ahead of both sagging Explorer and failing Fusion. Like it or not, the Escape is now very important—to the dealers, to the accountants, to the Louisville Assembly Plant.

2020 Ford Escape HUD
2020 Ford Escape 3/4 rear on road
2020 Ford Escape top view
2020 Ford Escape rear seats

With the 2020 model, Ford is now acknowledging that importance in ways that are impossible for an automaker to fake, and ones that are consistent with the company’s oft-discussed move to mildly premium market positioning. Start with the powerplants: The standard-equipment three-cylinder 1.5L turbomotor is only 10 horsepower short of the optional 190-hp 1.5L four-banger in Honda’s CR-V, and a two-liter turbo four takes that up to 250 hp. There are now two hybrid variants, one of which is a plug-in with 30 miles of full-electric range.

All four of these powertrains have an easier task than their predecessors, thanks to curb weights that are generally more than 200 pounds lower. Ford credits high-strength steel and more extensive use of aluminum for some of the reduction; we’ve also heard mutterings about lower levels of sound insulation. The company also says that the two-liter turbo variant can tow 3,500 pounds, although that is likely to be of more interest to European customers than it is in the Land Of The Free where you can often lease an F-150 for less money than you’d pay for a top-spec Escape.

Inside and out, the new Ford is handsome and sleek, if slightly cross-eyed and piscine when viewed from some angles, much like the new Mustang from which the general idea of this front fascia is derived. The interior boasts a full suite of luxury options, including a heads-up display and a B&O sound system. A second-generation self-parking mode requires much less driver feedback than the one that debuted on the Flex a decade ago. The Evasive Steering Assist is claimed to aid drivers in avoiding stopped or slow-moving vehicles ahead.

The interior is suitably premium as well, with brushed-metal accents everywhere and an available full-width LCD instrument panel. Owners of recent-generation smartphones will be able to unlock, lock, locate, and start their Escapes through an app, and we cannot imagine that anything could ever go wrong with that particular feature.

2020 Ford Escape escapeville sign
2020 Ford Escape reveal
2020 Ford Escape escapeville parade
Ford
2020 Ford Escape

Ford’s rather bizarre press-preview event for the new Escape involved dragging hapless autowriters down the “Main Street” of “Escapeville,” a series of facades laid onto existing buildings, each of which touted a particular excellence of the 180-inch crossover. This might have been a slightly hyperbolic acknowledgement of the Escape’s critical contribution to company coffers, but a more practical one can be found in the sliding rear seat. Moved all the way back, there’s a Suburban’s worth of legroom on offer for growing children. Shoved forward, the resulting extra cargo space will accommodate a full-sized dog crate for your “furbaby.”

If you want room for both… too bad. Escapeville is not a place where all your dreams can come true; that’s for the folks who can stretch to the new Explorer, an example of which was glowering handsomely at the citizens of Escapeville from a parking spot near the “SUV-ou-sel.” It’s hard to imagine anybody buying an Escape if they could get an Explorer, but that was also true for the Fairmont and the full-sized LTD.

Don’t worry. Ford has always done good volume, and made decent money, selling small family cars to the middle class. Once upon a time, that meant Model T. Today it means Escape—although for many of its owners, the name will be a caustic commentary on the fact that they would rather slip the surly bonds of earth and land behind the wheel of an F-150, preferably one with Platinum or Limited trim. And why not? It’s the best-selling passenger vehicle in America.