Crunch. There goes another tree. A patch of brambles. Sand sinks under the weight of the wheels, but the 2017 Ford Escape is undaunted, and so are we. Determined to get as close as possible to the Athabaska river bed that ebbs and flows through Jasper National Park's glacier-filled expanse, we have taken a path that isn't really a path at all, and as the gap between us and the asphalt widens I start to wonder if perhaps the lack of locking differentials or low-range 4-wheel drive will seal our fate out here hundreds of kilometres from the nearest tow truck.
But it doesn't. In fact, with traction control turned off, the new Escape's all-wheel drive system doesn't so much as spin a wheel advancing to the water's edge. It's a testament to Ford's design team that the compact SUV offers more than just lip service to the idea of leaving the mall parking lot behind and sampling the wilder side of Canadian driving. It also probably says something about the optimism of me and my co-driver, but it's not time for introspection. Instead, we step out onto the flood plain and take in the natural beauty that surrounds us, snow glinting high in the mountains and just a hint of sun breaking through the chilled cloud that covers the valley in quiet embrace.
Staying the course, of course
The Ford Escape has never been in danger of irrelevance. In fact, it's easy to argue that with the recent surge in small SUV sales the pint-sized people mover is poised to play an even bigger role in the lives of drivers seeking to balance affordability, comfort, and day-to-day utility in a single package. Still, pushing forward is the only viable path for any automaker intent on expanding, or even keeping a grip on its current clutch of customers, and so it is with the 2017 Ford Escape, which has seen several improvements made to what was already a very popular package.
The changes, while important, are not extreme. The biggest news on the mechanical front comes in the form of a new EcoBoost motor, a 1.5L 4-cylinder turbo that replaces the 1.6L unit without giving up much power. This mid-range engine checks in at 179 horsepower and 177 lb-ft of torque, positioning it between the entry-level 2.5L non-turbo 4-cylinder and the 245 horsepower, 275 lb-ft of twist produced by the massaged 2.0L EcoBoost that sits at the top of the lineup.
Each of these engines offers a 6-speed automatic transmission and, once you go turbo, the option of all-wheel drive. Fuel economy, at least in the real world, is surprisingly homogenous, which means that while you will pay somewhat of a penalty at the pump for the 2.0L EcoBoost (10.6L/100km city, 8.0L/100km highway), the spread isn't all that noticeable between the trio.
New duds, more gear
The 2017 Ford Escape keeps last year's platform alive and kicking, but wraps it in new sheet metal that include a long list of tucks and tweaks, some subtle, others more obvious. Park them side by side, and you'll be able to mentally check off the differences between the 2016 and 2017 models in rapid succession, particularly from the front where the more recent edition features a purposeful snout and detailed headlights and running lights.
Updates made to the interior of the Ford Escape are just as important, but more integrated into the workflow of the cabin, with improved storage and organization of controls taking centre stage. Size-wise, you still get 1,925 litres of total cargo space with the rear seats out of the picture; fill the back row with kids, or even adults, and there's ample space for as many as five to ride along.
Ford has always been willing to push boundaries when it comes to loading its more affordable models with high-tech features, and the 2017 Escape is no exception. The SUV has the distinction of being the first vehicle in the Blue Oval family to receive the all-new SYNC 3 infotainment system paired with both the Android Auto and Apple CarPlay mobile device integration systems.
Although I'm not a big fan of either of the latter two, SYNC 3 manages to simplify what had been roundly criticized as a complex and not particularly friendly interface for handling Ford's entertainment, communications, and navigation functionality. The cleaner graphics and easier-to-parse menu structure of the new design will appeal to a wider audience, and that translates into fewer headaches for owners.
The tech bonanza doesn't end once you've paired your phone with the Escape over Bluetooth, mind you. Ford has also made available a longer list of advanced safety equipment including a lane departure warning system and a lane keeping system (that can nudge the vehicle back between the lines, if necessary), a forward collision warning system with automatic braking (as part of the Escape's adaptive cruise control system), and a driver alertness monitor. All of this comes alongside the previously offered blind spot monitoring system, which helps push Ford past a few of its rivals such as the Toyota RAV4 and Mazda CX-5 in terms of overall active passenger protection.
While most drivers will probably never see the need to test out the limits of the 2017 Ford Escape's all-wheel drive system on the rocky banks of a northern river, the time I spent behind the wheel of the SUV charting a course from Calgary to the mountainous splendour of Jasper, Alberta, gave me full fettle to explore the 'ute's many faces.
For budget-conscious buyers the $25,099 entry-level version, what with its stout 2.5L motor and spacious confines, presents serious appeal. Those seeking to spend more money will enjoy class-leading EcoBoost acceleration and torque while swinging one of the biggest clubs in the small SUV set.
Outside of the luxury segment, it's hard to think of a buyer the 2017 Escape hasn't taken into account, and it's difficult for me to see how the new and improved model won't secure its spot among Canada's top five people movers.