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New-model road test: Will this new breed of SUV lure you aboard?


If you're reluctant to join the buyer bandwagon, maybe the Ford Escape or Acura MDX will finally change your mind.



Will this new breed of SUV lure you aboard?

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Choose article section... Ford Escape Acura MDX What you'll pay, what you'll get Cream of the competition

If you're reluctant to join the buyer bandwagon, maybe the Ford Escape or Acura MDX will finally change your mind.

By Michelle Krebs

You'd think that with all of the sport-utility vehicles on the road, everybody would have one by now. But apparently there are a few holdouts, and the auto companies know who you are.

And they know why you're holding out: Even though the rugged look and surefootedness of a sport-utility are appealing, you refuse to trade the nimble handling, smooth ride, and fuel efficiency of the sedan you're currently driving for the harsh, ungainly ride of many gas-guzzling, truck-type sport-utilities.

For you reluctant sport-utility wannahaves, a new species of SUV has arrived. Two newcomers, which hit the market this fall, are worth your serious consideration. Though they're at opposite ends of the price spectrum, the Ford Escape and Acura MDX set new standards in their respective categories by combining carlike ride, handling, and fuel economy with the versatility and four-wheel-drive capability of traditional sport-utilities.

Ford and Acura may be late to the party, but they've come through with the best entries in their respective classes.

Ford Escape

The Escape, unmistakably a Ford SUV thanks to its rugged appearance, is the company's first small sport-utility. It's easy to maneuver and park, especially in congested urban areas like San Francisco, where I tested it.

Still, the five-passenger Escape has one of the most spacious interiors in its class. The cargo area, accessible through either the liftgate or the flip-up rear window, is tall enough to carry bicycles upright and wide enough to transport plywood from Home Depot. Rear seats fold for even more space, and there are nooks and crannies throughout the cabin for additional storage. Power outlets are strategically located in the front and back.

The base model's 2.0-liter, four-cylinder engine is rated at 130 horsepower and paired with a five-speed manual transmission. Most Escapes sold in the US, however, will be equipped with a 3.0-liter, 200-horsepower V-6, mated with a five-speed automatic.

In test drives, the V-6 test model accelerated quickly from dead stops, and gave no indication of becoming winded, even on steep northern California hills. With its optional towing package, the V-6 Escape can haul up to 3,500 pounds, enough to pull Jet Skis, snowmobiles, or a small boat.

The body and frame are combined in one unit, in contrast to some other sport-utilities, where the body sits separately atop the frame. This single-unit construction puts the Escape lower to the ground—more like a car than a typical SUV—for easy entry and exit, and reduces weight for greater fuel efficiency. The new Ford delivers 24 to 28 miles per gallon, and its four- and six-cylinder engines both have low emission ratings.

Lower weight, combined with a suspension system more common to cars than trucks, allows for agile handling. Indeed, the Escape maneuvered the winding, hilly roads of Highway 1 north of San Francisco more swiftly and handily than I imagined a sport-utility could. It held the sharp curves as a small car would, with little of the lean that you sense while driving some other SUVs. My passengers, back and front, said they remained comfortable even weaving through the S-curves and hitting bumps.

Front-wheel drive is standard on the Escape. Four-wheel drive, as an option, will add about $1,500 to the price. For drivers in mild climates and those who never let wheels leave the pavement, two-wheel drive is quite good enough; it saves on the purchase price and what you'll lay out for fuel. On the other hand, drivers up north and those who regularly venture off the asphalt should definitely spring for 4WD.

Set on automatic, the four-wheel-drive system senses the traction at each wheel and determines the appropriate power split between front and rear. Or, with the turn of a dial, you can lock the Escape into four-wheel drive so the power is spread evenly front and rear at all times. The 4WD system is intended more for ice and snow than for off-roading. Still, in my northern California test, the Escape deftly traversed a hilly, muddy logging road—a more demanding surface than most owners are ever likely to encounter.

The Escape starts at a competitive $18,160 for the base XLS four-cylinder model, including delivery fee. The top-of-the-line XLT version starts at $19,710; with four-wheel drive, it starts at $21,335. A well-equipped V-6 model with four-wheel drive will cost between $22,000 and $25,000.

Acura MDX

Until now, Honda's luxury division has been without a solid contender in the hot market for upscale sport-utilities. This fall, Acura fills the void with the MDX, which promises to raise the bar for all luxury SUVs, much as the Honda Odyssey (upon which the MDX is based) did for minivans. Though classy enough to deliver you to the country club or the opera, the MDX is also rugged enough to handle challenging off-road conditions.

The MDX looks like a typical sport-utility. Slightly shorter than a Ford Explorer, the new Acura accommodates seven passengers in three rows of seats. Second- and third-row seats fold snugly into the floor to make room for loads like lumber. In contrast to sport-utilities and vans with clumsy removable seats, those in the MDX flop flat with a simple one-latch procedure.

Because it shares its basic structure with the Odyssey, the Canadian-built MDX delivers a better balance of carlike ride and off-road ruggedness than any of its competitors. I went all the way to Central America to make that judgment. On a test drive of the MDX and its major rivals—the Lexus RX 300, Mercedes-Benz M-Class and BMW X5—the Acura easily handled the highways of Belize, which resemble rough, gravel-paved country roads in the US. My ride in the MDX was smooth and quiet, and its well-appointed, finely crafted interior provided a civilized counterpoint to the wild, woolly jungle that surrounded us.

The MDX's standard four-wheel-drive system constantly monitors the vehicle's condition. When wheel slippage is predicted, the system automatically transfers power to the wheel that will give optimum traction—without the driver's being aware that any change is going on. The 4WD system got a workout on my test drive in Belize, where our lodge was at least 20 miles from pavement. To reach the highway, we traveled rutted roads and rocky hills, crossed narrow bridges built of wooden planks, and plowed through loose, dry sand that produced blinding clouds of dust. Through it all, the Acura held steady and stable, without the nearly-tipping-over feeling you get in some sport-utilities.

The MDX is powered by a fuel-efficient, environmentally friendly, 3.5-liter V-6, and the transmission is a smooth five-speed automatic. Though the engine is rated at a respectable 240 horsepower, it's ultra-low in emissions. It is also among the best in class for fuel economy: 17 miles per gallon in the city, 23 on the highway.

The MDX has other advantages, too. With three rows of seats, it can accommodate more people than any of its competitors (except the Mercedes M-Class, which can be ordered with a third-row seat). The new Acura is more polished in appearance and more stable on rough roads than the M-Class, has more interior room than the Lexus RX 300 and BMW X5, and when the price is finally set, it will be considerably cheaper than the X5.

Although the MDX has not yet been crash-tested by the federal government, Acura officials expect a top safety rating because of its sturdy construction. The new SUV comes with three-point seatbelts for all seven passengers and standard side air bags for those in the front seats. The MDX is outfitted with amenities that are typical in luxury automobiles, including leather seats and a premium audio system. Options, which include a navigation system with DVD technology, are few.

The author, a Michigan-based automotive journalist, tests hundreds of production models and "concept cars" each year.

What you'll pay, what you'll get

Ford Escape

Base price, including destination fee:
XLS — $18,160
XLT — $19,710

Acura MDX

Base price, including destination fee:
$35,000 *(estimated)

Major standard equipment:
XLS—air conditioning; power door locks; power windows with “one-touch” feature on driver’s side; folding rear seat; remote keyless entry; AM/FM with CD player

XLT—same plus AM/FM stereo with CD player and cassette; 60/40 split rear seat; fog lamps; cruise control

Standard equipment:
Leather seats; eight-way power driver seat; heated front seats and heated power outside mirrors; trip computer; dual front/rear automatic climate control; seven-speaker CD/cassette audio system; steering wheel-mounted audio controls; cruise control; tilt steering wheel; HomeLink remote system for opening garage doors


Safety features
Safety features

Cream of the competition

Of those I've driven, the Ford Escape and Acura MDX lead the way in delivering the best of both the car and sport-utility worlds. But the competition will get hotter before long. Small SUVs, such as the Escape, are beefing up with greater size, more features, added interior space, and, in some cases, increased engine power. Larger sport-utilities—those in the MDX league—are adding the practical third-row seat and carlike ride and handling.

For now, the Honda CR-V and Toyota RAV4 are the most worthy competitors to the Escape (aside from the new Ford's virtual twin, the Mazda Tribute).

The current CR-V (2000 base price: $19,090, including destination fee) is the best-selling small sport-utility in America, and it scores fabulously high on owner satisfaction, according to research by J.D. Power and Associates. In contrast to the Escape, which offers both four- and six-cylinder engines, the CR-V comes only with a 2.0-liter, four-cylinder engine. It does offer four-wheel drive and some clever features, including a fold-down center tray between the front seats and a rear cargo compartment cover that transforms into a fold-out picnic table. It's reported that the next-generation CR-V will be bigger and have other improvements.

Same, too, for the second-generation RAV4, which hits the market this fall. The new Toyota (which at press time had not been available for test drives, but had been displayed at auto shows) is larger and roomier than its rather tinny, toylike predecessor. The new version still comes only with a 2.0-liter, four-cylinder engine. The 2000 model had a base price of $17,368, including destination charge; prices for the 2001 model had not been announced at press time.

The Acura MDX faces stiffer competition: the Lexus RX 300, Mercedes-Benz M-Class, and BMW X5.

The RX 300 (2000 base price: $33,500, including destination fee) is the first luxury sport-utility to offer the quiet, comfortable ride and nimble handling of a Lexus luxury sedan. Indeed, the RX 300 has won rave reviews from owners as the most appealing luxury sport-utility in J.D. Power and Associates surveys. Luxuriously appointed, the RX 300—powered by a 3.0-liter, 220-horsepower V-6 engine—is available with four-wheel drive and comes with a long list of standard safety, comfort, and convenience features.

The Mercedes M-Class (2000 base price: $35,945, including destination charge) has a lot going for it besides that three-pointed star on the grille and the best crash-safety rating in its class from the Insurance Institute for Highway Safety. Mercedes offers a wide variety of M-Class versions: The base ML320 is powered by a V-6 engine. The ML430 has a powerful V-8 under its hood, and it can be ordered with a third-row seat and a nifty roof that retracts for open-air motoring. In addition, there's the company's high-performance SUV, the ML55, that comes with a breathtaking 342-horsepower engine.

For sports sedan aficionados, the BMW X5 delivers the sportiest on-road handling of any luxury sport-utility. It dominates curvy roads like no other SUV. But it skimps on room, and it's the most expensive of this bunch (base price of $39,470 for the 2001 model, including delivery charge).

—Michelle Krebs

The author, a Michigan-based automotive journalist, tests hundreds of production models and "concept cars" each year.


Michelle Krebs. New-model road test: Will this new breed of SUV lure you aboard?. Medical Economics 2000;18:128.

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