ANN ARBOR, Mich. — I’ve always liked the current Ford Escape and have been able to look past its flaws, chiefly uninspired looks and drab interiors, in favor of its respectable driving dynamics and overall practical execution within the small SUV segment. Its refresh for the 2023 model year helps smooth some of those rough edges out. It’s still nothing mind-blowing, and the Escape inhabits a mighty competitive slice of the market, but the new ST-Line Elite trim only reiterated why I like this vehicle, and now it’s even easier to recommend.
The 2023 Ford Escape gets subtle exterior updates that go a long way to making this little crossover more attractive. It sees the most improvements up front, where a new grille mimics the handsome looks of the Ford Edge, with even a whiff of Mustang Mach-E. The grille transforms in shape from a goofy smile to a determined grimace, and is moved higher in the fascia with the Blue Oval placed inside instead of above (which is why it now looks more like the Edge instead of the European-market Focus). The new LED headlights — reflectors are standard, but higher trims get projectors — get a more serious look to them, too. Our ST-Line Elite also has a fresh light bar spanning the width of the nose below the hood (it looks fantastic at night), which is a tad reminiscent of the thicker bar spanning the face of the F-150 Lightning. The hood is also slightly reshaped with more prominent creases.
That aforementioned ST-Line is a new appearance offering available at different levels across the revamped Escape trim lineup. The ST-Lines get a unique black mesh grille up front. Along the sides, they get body color cladding on the fenders and door moldings, as opposed to the contrast black on other trims, as well as small “ST-Line” badges. Our ST-Line Elite’s glossy black-painted wheels give a nice contrast to the Rapid Red Metallic paint, as do the black window surrounds — other Escapes get chrome brightwork here and not for the better. In back, the ST-Line trims get a bigger spoiler and a unique black skid plate. This Escape, with its tweaked front end and new ST-Line looks, exudes significantly more athleticism than before.
But, in terms of performance, there’s actually nothing additionally athletic about the 2023 Escape. The same powertrain options remain. A 1.5-liter EcoBoost (read: turbocharged) inline three-cylinder engine, standard in the Base, Active and ST-Line trim, produces 180 horsepower and 199 pound-feet of torque, put to either the front or all four wheels via an eight-speed automatic transmission. ST-Line Select, ST-Line Elite and Platinum trims get a 2.0-liter EcoBoost four-cylinder offering 250 hp and 280 lb-ft of torque, with all-wheel drive as standard. The ST-Line trim and up can also be had with a hybrid powertrain making a total of 192 hp, and either front- or all-wheel drive. The Escape PHEV is now the range-topping trim, with a total of 210 system hp and 37 miles of EV range. It’s still only available with front-wheel drive.
The updated Escape interior is highlighted by an available 13.2-inch touchscreen infotainment display running Sync 4 software. In addition to being big and impossible to miss, this new unit’s graphics are remarkably sharp, and the screen is quick to respond. The rub here is that many of the controls you normally expect to have their own hard buttons are now activated through the touchscreen. Climate controls, seat heating and most audio controls live there, but the ones that keep you warm or cool are permanently docked at the bottom of the screen. There’s still a physical volume knob on the center stack, as well as the steering wheel-mounted audio controls. Lower trims with the eight-inch touchscreen do get physical controls for audio and HVAC. We can celebrate the fact that wireless Apple CarPlay and Android Auto are now standard across the Escape lineup. The iPhone projection worked quite well, with the HVAC controls still accessible along the bottom of the display, and the Escape’s native home screen just a single, easy touch away. The latter is a big improvement for Ford – getting out of Apple CarPlay used to be a frustrating tap-tap-tap situation.
Our tester was equipped with the 12.3-inch digital instrument cluster (standard on ST-Line Elite and Platinum trims, which is just as crisp and clear as the infotainment display. There was also the optional head-up display, but it’s a small piece of glass that pops up from the instrument panel hood, rather than being projected onto the windshield. Despite its small size, it’s still quite useful, providing important road and vehicle information in our line of sight. It’s part of the Premium Technology Package that additionally includes a 10-speaker Bang & Olufsen audio system, HD Radio, Ford’s Active Park Assist 2.0 (which helps you steer, accelerate and brake into parking spaces) and a set of snazzy leather seats. Standard in this trim is a wireless phone charging pad in the cubby below the center stack alongside both USB-A and USB-C ports.
The ST-Line trims get a nice flat-bottom steering wheel with red stitching, while the tech package’s leather seats go the extra mile with perforated quilting that contributes to a particularly upscale look and feel for an Escape. That’s welcome, since the current-generation Escape interior has always been a letdown in terms of style, materials and ambiance. There are still plenty of hard plastics around you, but, more than ever before, your eyes and hands are drawn to the tech and the more interesting textures. The stitching throughout the cabin reinforces the sporty character in our tester, as do the carbon fiber-looking plastic trim pieces on the doors and dash. The interior also feels quite spacious, with no position in the cabin feeling particularly cramped. The optional panoramic sunroof lets in a lot of light or, if you want, fresh air.
The cargo area is just as accommodating as it’s always been. Now, Ford’s official volume behind the second row of 37.5 cubic feet comes with an asterisk. That’s, in theory, in the same ballpark as the segment’s best, but to get it, you have to fully utilize the Escape’s admittedly handy sliding back seat feature that the others don’t have. Basically, you have to choose between max cargo and max back seat space. Fold down that back seat and you get 65.4 cubic feet behind the first row, which is indeed less than those family haulers.
Driving this refreshed Escape is a familiar affair. Acceleration from the 2.0-liter EcoBoost is quicker than you might expect, getting this thing moving down the road with a sense of urgency when asked. It takes just a moment for the full press of power to come alive off the line, but it builds through the middle of the rev range and tapers off slowly as the tachometer pushes north. It feels perfectly competent making passing maneuvers at highways speeds.
The Escape’s suspension is a good match for this peppy turbo motor, as both work to encourage you to drive it just a little harder than you normally would most mainstream compact crossovers. There’s some good road feel through the suspension and enough stiffness to keep it feeling pinned down in corners. That’s not to say the ride is harsh — it’s still comfortable, if not the most compliant. It feels like what the ST-Line’s somewhat sportified exterior appearance would have you believe. The steering is a bit too artificially boosted, but at least there is some feedback to be had. It’s also encouragingly precise, providing car-like confidence when pointing it from one curve to the next.
There’s one thing that may give buyers pause: the price. This ST-Line Elite starts at $39,955, including $1,495 in destination (though Ford’s configurator currently shows an available $500 “2.0L EcoBoost Discount Package”). At least that gets you the 2.0-liter turbo, all-wheel drive, those improved looks and upgraded tech. Our tester, with its optional paint finish ($495), panoramic sunroof ($1,595), those slick black wheels ($195) and Premium Technology Package ($1,910), along with that aforementioned 2.0L discount (-$500) rings in at $43,650. That’s a hefty price tag for the segment, but with the Escape’s good driving dynamics and the improvements Ford implemented for 2023, including the sharp ST-Line look (or “cute” as one truck-owning passerby called it), that price pill gets easier to swallow.