Price: $30,425 as tested (including destination charge)
Engine: 1.6-liter four-cylinder, 178 horsepower
Transmission: Six-speed automatic
Fuel economy: 23 mpg city/26 mpg highway
My favorite standard feature: MyFord Sync voice-activated system
Option I can’t live without: Power liftgate($495)
You might also be considering: Chevrolet Equinox, Honda CR-V, Mazda CX-5, Toyota RAV4

See more specs on the Ford Escape lineup in our Car Guide.

What I Think:

When my high school besties decided to take a whirlwind trip to the Lake Michigan town of Saugatuck earlier this month, I took the opportunity to get some seat time in the 2014 Ford Escape. And there were some good reasons to get to know this new model. The Escape had an extensive redesign in 2013, and for 2014 both a rearview camera and the Sync system are now standard. Ford’s smallest sport-ute is trying to push the Honda CR-V off the sales pedestal for this competitive segment. A bit of trivia for your quiver: the F-Series truck is the only Ford vehicle that outsells the Escape.

In high school, we were most often driving around in my friend’s AMC Hornet that we had named the Hornet Bomb. The Hornet was built to battle with the imports in the early 1970s, and our old Hornet Bomb would be proud that the Escape is standing its own ground against both Honda and Toyota. My besties, Julie and Teresa, are car enthusiasts and happily agreed to help me take a hard look at the Escape.

The Escape actually looks more like a tall Focus than an Explorer, and that is not a bad thing. In fact, it is a good-looking vehicle from every angle, and the inside looks great, too. The material choices in the interior feel and look good. Even though the majority of the cabin is plain molded plastic, it doesn’t offend, and the gray cloth seats were nondescript. There is a feeling of utility with an emphasis on durability.

Ford has paid attention to the need to be more eco-friendly in material choices and used a soybean-based foam for the seats and head restraints, and the carpet is made out of recycled fibers and plastic bottles. The Escape also works on its carbon tireprint with its standard active grille shutters that make the vehicle more dynamic and help with the fuel economy (which is 26 mpg in the city, 32 mpg on the highway). I think this earth-friendly strategy is perfect for the Escape’s demographic, and besides, it yields good karma points.

There are three trim levels available, S, SE, and the all-tricked-out Titanium. The Escape we tried was in High Impact Blue SE with a convenience package ($1,340) that included an eight-inch touchscreen with MyFord Touch, reverse sensing, a perimeter alarm, roof side rails, dual-zone temperature controls, nine speakers, and Sync Services. The power liftgate added another $495. The top-end Titanium models get a foot-activated hatch. I for one would pony up for the luxury of swirling my foot under the bumper and having the hatch magically open.

Teresa called shotgun and grabbed the front seat navigator spot. Even though she was a basketball standout back in the day, she is just shy of 5’5″, but strangely her head hit the roof of the car. We were sure that there must be some way to lower the front passenger’s seat, but after consulting the manual, we realized that the four ways it did move were not up and down. Granted, she does have an abnormally long torso, but if you plan on having any tall passengers, they will be most comfortable in the rear seat. Full disclosure: this vehicle did have the panorama roof that takes away some headroom. It is a very nice option but comes with a $1,495 price tag.

We quickly switched navigators so that Julie, who is barely five feet, could feel tall in the catbird seat. The ten-way power driver’s seat did not suffer from the same height problem, and I was extremely comfortable. Too-tall-torso-Teresa was content in the back seat and never complained again. That is, until I made her pump the gas.

I am not a fan of pumping gas. In high school, I lost too many gas caps, and I always think my hands end up with a slight smell of gasoline. The Escape, in fact like all Fords, has a capless gas tank—genius. Seriously, is there a prize for most obvious invention ever?

Julie was our DJ for the day and pecked around on the MyFord Touch, toggling between SiriusXM satellite radio and FM—she is one of those people who change the station for every song. I kept switching back to the navigation screen to try and keep us on track, since my navigator had no idea where we were headed. Like in the movies when drug dealers give away drugs until the users are hooked, Sirius is free for the first six months. As any satellite addict will tell you—especially if you live in remote areas—you will need rehab to kick this habit. To add the navigation component is a $795 upcharge, it worked effortlessly, but if you have a smartphone you may prefer to splurge on other options.

We used both the touchscreen and the voice-activated mode, and both worked without a hitch. We agreed that once you settled in with the Escape, you would probably use the voice method most of the time.

The Escape SE and Titanium come with either a 1.6-liter or 2.0-liter EcoBoost engine and your choice of front- or four-wheel drive in either size. The base S comes with only a 2.5-liter four-cylinder engine and front-wheel drive. We had the 1.6 with front-wheel drive and were very impressed with the sporty handling. The EcoBoost engine is essentially a turbo that is engineered to be fuel efficient. Since we were mostly on two-lane highways, we did some aggressive passing, and the Escape didn’t hesitate when we needed to overtake Sunday drivers.

The steering was quick and responsive, and it actually felt more like a sedan than an SUV. The engineers also paid attention and added some more sound-canceling features. As a result, the cabin was indeed quiet, except of course for the incessant chatter of three old friends catching up on their lives. I was the only one who drove, but my passengers agreed that the Escape delivered a sporty ride that made the trip zip by, although Teresa would have preferred if I had driven a tad faster.

Since we were on a day trip, cargo space was not an issue, but we did note that it should be enough for a family of four on a vacation. If you are camping, you might benefit from a roof-rack-mounted storage box. Both the Honda CR-V and the Toyota RAV4 have slightly more cargo space, but not by a significant amount.

The Verdict:

Since the Escape is no longer offered as a hybrid (in fact, there is not one in this segment), and most of the models in this segment are neck and neck with EPA numbers, it comes down to personal preference: which car do you want to fling down the highway? If the choice is which compact sport-utility vehicle, the Escape is a great choice. It is a winner for driving experience, good fuel economy, and adequate cargo space. If you are leaning toward a sedan with plenty of room, I would also give the Escape an extended test drive. You will find that it is actually fun to drive and looks great in your driveway. And remember, the good karma points will transfer to you.

Peanut Gallery:

Annie White: I don’t know why, but I’ve always had a soft spot for small crossovers, and the Escape is no exception. It’s got just the right mix of practicality and style. My only gripe with this Escape was that it felt a little cheaper than its $30K price. Sure, it’s got navigation and a panoramic sunroof (both extra-cost options), but what does a girl have to do to get leather seats?

Laura Sky Brown: First, full disclosure: I am not an SUV fan. My household contains a Ford Explorer, and I’ve never liked how bouncy-jouncy it is, how narrow and enclosed the front compartment feels, or how high up it rides. Nevertheless, I entered this Escape with a somewhat open mind. I liked three things about it before even turning the key: the low, comfortable entry into the front seats; the low, friendly lift-over height in the back luggage compartment; and the auto-opening liftgate operated by pressing the key fob control twice. I didn’t enjoy the driving experience, though. It’s smaller and lower than the Explorer but still more bouncy-jouncy than I like. Having said that, I know lots of people do enjoy this kind of vehicle; I’m just not one of them. Would I get one of these for a college kid? Absolutely.