Ford’s new-generation Escape needs to be a hit with Australian buyers. Proving it’s better than Mazda’s most popular model would be a great starting point.
In 2001, America’s Ford and Japan’s Mazda teamed up to take on the pioneering Toyota RAV4 with a pair of twins-under-the-skins.
Two decades on, the successors to the Ford Escape and Mazda Tribute face a similar mission in Australia: to challenge the RAV4 that is romping away in the sales charts – mostly thanks to the first offering of a hybrid variant.
The latest-generation Escape continues the revival of a nameplate that returned to Australia in 2017, for a facelift of the Kuga model that had been imported from Europe since 2012. (The Kuga name is still used for this new Escape in the UK and Europe, while the US continues to use Escape.)
The Tribute is long gone, having been replaced relatively early by the more SUV-oriented (and solely Mazda developed) CX-7 in 2006. That didn’t last much longer, either, with the CX-7 substituted for the CX-5 in 2012.
Sales of mid-sized Mazda SUVs haven’t looked back since, with the CX-5 establishing itself as Australia’s favourite SUV before the all-new, fifth-generation RAV4 rolled into town in 2019.
A second-generation CX-5 was released in 2017, with a series of small updates since.
With the RAV4 dominating the sales charts, this comparison is about finding out whether the Ford Escape can overcome the popular CX-5 as one of the best alternatives for those buyers who aren’t necessarily persuaded by the Toyota.
Pricing and equipment
The Ford Escape starts from $35,990 before on-road costs, and will sometime in late 2021 be available as a plug-in hybrid costing from $52,940.
For this test, we have the one-up-from-base 2021 Ford Escape ST-Line FWD (front-wheel drive) that costs from $37,990.
The Mazda CX-5 Maxx Sport FWD is a natural match – also the second most affordable model in the range and sharing the Ford’s front-wheel-drive approach.
It’s slightly cheaper at $36,290, though the front-drive Maxx Sport is significantly outgunned under the bonnet. While both vehicles sport a 2.0-litre four-cylinder, the Escape’s is turbocharged – giving it 59 per cent more power and nearly double the torque.
At the time of publishing, both vehicles were being offered with drive-away deals: $38,490 for the Escape (for 2020 plate) and $38,240 for the CX-5.
Both variants offer all-wheel drive for a $3000 premium, with Mazda throwing in the bonus of a bigger, 2.5-litre engine with some more grunt (though still without turbocharging, which is available in high-spec models).
There’s not a lot in it for price difference, yet there’s a clear divide between the respective standard equipment lists.
The CX-5 Maxx Sport’s single notable advantage over the Escape is that more exterior colours are available for free, whereas Ford charges $650 unless you’re happy with black or white.
The Ford’s exclusives over the Mazda aren’t minor items, either: fully digital instrument cluster (versus the CX-5’s analogue/digital combo display), wireless smartphone charging, embedded modem, LED interior ambient lighting, privacy glass, front parking sensors, speed-limit notification, and 18-inch alloy wheels (to the Mazda’s 17s).
Even stepping up to the $40,980 (plus on-roads) CX-5 Touring AWD only catches up with front sensors and speed-limit reading (while adding a head-up display).
A $2800 ST-Line Pack is available for the Escape to add hands-free tailgate operation (also an individual $1300 option), heated front seats, adaptive/glare-free headlights, and a head-up display.
Escape buyers seeking a branded audio or panoramic sunroof need to step up to the Vignale variant that starts from $46,590.
Infotainment and tech
Both vehicles provide a commendable amount of safety features, covering off key driver aids such as autonomous emergency braking, forward collision warning, blind-spot and rear-traffic monitoring, auto high-beam switching, lane-keeping/departure systems, fatigue alert, LED headlights, and adaptive cruise control.
Mazda’s AEB set-up adds auto braking for reverse parking, while the Ford helps nervous parkers the most with sensors front and rear.
Both radar-cruise systems include stop-go functionality for slow-moving traffic.
The Escape utilises Ford’s familiar SYNC 3 interface and 8.0-inch touchscreen combination. There’s a case for the display to be larger in the Escape than it is in the smaller Puma SUV – especially as the likes of Kia and Hyundai are introducing 10.0-inch screens – though there’s certainly no issue with its bright and crisp presentation.
The interface is simple to use and quick to respond to selections, and useful functions include text-message reading/speaking and ‘Do not disturb’ to block out incoming calls.
Mazda’s latest infotainment system has yet to be installed in the CX-5, so the company’s most popular model for now persists with the MZD Connect interface that is looking old and relatively limited in content. The navigation’s use of TomTom maps doesn’t help the dated look. (An infotainment upgrade is due in 2021.)
On the plus side, there’s a rotary controller/joystick on the centre console that, in our view, is still the most effective way for a driver to operate an infotainment interface while keeping their eyes on the road as much as possible, reverting to a touchscreen display when stopped.
Ford’s instrument cluster looks advanced with its fully digital display, featuring colours and graphics that are consistent with the infotainment system. There’s minimal customisation, however, compared with similar digital driver displays from carmakers such as Skoda and Volkswagen.
There’s no option to feature a navigation map in the cluster, for example.
Some buyers may appreciate the CX-5’s traditional dials, which are complemented by a basic mini digital panel for fuel, trip computer and driver assistance information.
The lack of a digital speedo is disappointing, though – only remedied by opting for a higher trim grade that comes with a head-up display.
The Escape continues the upward trajectory of Ford interiors, with a strong combination of contemporary design, excellent ergonomics, and a good level of materials quality that includes soft-touch upper/mid dash segments and front upper door cards.
In ST-Line spec, the Escape gains some sporty touches with a chunky, flat-bottom steering wheel and lots of red stitching.
Some plastics, such as the brushed-style centre console and glossy black pattern inserts, add some extra smartness to the presentation.
Examples of the Escape’s better ergonomics include window switches that are more conveniently angled for occupants, front cupholders that are in a more natural reach position for driver and front passenger, and the super-logical face/feet venting buttons represented by the outline of a human body (in old-school Volvo style).
It’s possible to be a bit picky about the Escape’s fit and finish compared with the Mazda, though, while some detail quality is lacking. The climate dials feel very loose, the audio dials lack smoothness, and other buttons don’t feel as nicely damped as those in the CX-5.
Interacting with the Mazda’s cabin makes it feel a bit more premium, especially as it matches the Escape for pleasant materials in key places.
The door cubbies in each vehicle both do something a little different from the norm. The CX-5 includes a slot that helps to store notepads or magazines, and the Escape features three individually moulded sections comprising bottle holder, cupholder and mini tray.
Extra storage options in the Escape include a passenger-side net and a larger front storage tray that can accommodate some smaller items next to the wireless charging tray. The Ford includes USB-A and USB-C ports, plus a 12-volt socket, in this area where the Mazda has two regular USB-A ports (and a 12V socket) in the centre console cubby. Another 12V port sits in the forward tray.
Both console cubbies feature handy removable trays; the Escape adds a useful pen clip.
The Escape is a bit longer than before, including a 20mm increase to its wheelbase, which helps free up some extra interior space.
But while leg room is reasonably good, there’s more to be found in the CX-5 that is the shorter vehicle by 70mm and isn’t even considered the segment benchmark for rear-seat space. Head room is more generous in the Mazda, too, which also feels wider (without suggesting three adults will fit comfortably).
Both vehicles provide excellent foot space beneath the front seats and a seatback recline function.
The CX-5 has the best back seat in other ways as its bench provides more comfortable cushioning, allowing passengers to nestle more naturally, whereas the Escape’s bench is particularly lacking under-thigh support.
As with Ford’s Focus range, the Escape also misses out on a centre armrest. Its seatback pouches are also narrower than its rival’s.
Ventilation features in both back seats, along with USB ports. Ford places both a USB-A and USB-C port on the back of the centre console; Mazda hides its USB-A ports under the lid of the centre armrest tray. The armrest also incorporates two cupholders and a convenient slot for a smartphone.
When getting in and out of the CX-5 and Escape, our testers noticed the Mazda’s doors shut with a reassuringly refined precision whereas the Ford’s shuddered shut.
Don’t read too much into the difference in quoted luggage capacities, as the Ford’s 556L is measured up to the roof and with the seatbacks pushed forward. The Mazda’s 442L are counted up to the cargo blind.
The floor widths are similar, and the CX-5 has the slightly longer boot floor if the Escape’s seatbacks are in their default position.
Cargo blinds that are latched cleverly to the tailgate are common to both vehicles (if flimsy in the Ford’s case), as are convenient seatback-fold levers.
The Mazda has three levers – one for each of the 40-20-40 segments that gives the CX-5 extra versatility over the 60-40 split of the Escape. The Mazda’s rear seats also fold almost flat, whereas they leave a stepped floor in the Ford.
Each boot includes a 12-volt socket and features a temporary spare wheel under the floor.
Our Escape test car included the optional auto tailgate.
The Escape ST-Line features a 2.0-litre turbocharged four-cylinder also used in the US but dropped in Europe (to focus on hybrid and turbo three-cylinder variants).
It produces 183kW and 387Nm to bring extra power and torque over the similar engine available in the previous Kuga. For extra perspective, those outputs are higher than those found in the entry-level Porsche Macan.
Power goes to the front wheels via the same eight-speed torque converter auto found in the Focus small car.
There’s plenty of mid-range punch on tap, giving the Escape vigorous acceleration that’s beyond the majority of its rivals. An eighth gear also allows the 2.0-litre turbo to operate at a relaxed 1800rpm on the freeway.
More’s the pity, then, that the Escape’s engine and auto can struggle to gel. The drivetrain often feels hyperactive, with a twitchy response that can lead to a sudden surge even with the lightest of presses on the throttle pedal.
It made our testers double-check the Ford wasn’t in its available Sport mode rather than default Normal setting (with selections made via a centre console button).
The engine’s torque can also overwhelm the front wheels if there’s an enthusiastic push of the throttle pedal, so it’s worth considering the ST-Line AWD.
Mazda’s CX-5 is available with a 2.5-litre turbo petrol engine that isn’t far off the Escape’s power (170kW) and offers even more torque (420Nm). But that requires spending more than $50,000 drive-away on the GT variant.
The Maxx Sport FWD also misses out on the 140kW/252Nm non-turbo 2.5-litre four-cylinder that powers the AWD version and would be the minimum engine starting point in CarAdvice’s view.
The 115kW/200Nm 2.0-litre four-cylinder isn’t woeful, by any means, but it feels underpowered for the task of shifting an almost 1.6-tonne mid-sized family SUV – and that’s before you put more than a driver on board.
It starts to sound strained when pushed, which it needs to be for any semblance of overtaking performance.
On country roads, the doughy throttle response also makes it hard to add incremental speed accurately. There’s a marked improvement by flicking a centre console switch to put the six-speed auto transmission into a Sport mode that holds gears longer.
The 2.0-litre engine feels more adequate around town, though its case would be helped if we could report that it brings excellent fuel economy as a trade-off.
However, our long test route involving suburbs, country roads and freeways produced indicated consumption figures for both SUVs that weren’t that far apart.
The CX-5 registered 8.0 litres per 100km compared with 8.3L/100km for the significantly more powerful Escape.
Officially, the Escape is rated at 8.6L/100km – the same figure for the former Kuga despite two extra gear ratios – with a requirement for 95RON premium unleaded.
The CX-5’s ADR81 figure is 6.9L/100km and it happily accepts normal unleaded petrol.
For those keen to wait for the Escape plug-in hybrid, it offers official fuel consumption of just 1.5L/100km, with real-world figures impacted by how far you travel between charges, with up to 50km of EV range.
On the road
The Ford Kuga was among the best mid-sized SUVs to drive, in keeping with Ford of Europe’s reputation for pleasing keener steerers. It makes the 2021 Escape experience all the more surprising, because there are several issues with its on-road manners.
The restless ride is one of the most fundamental. With the Escape almost constantly agitated by dips and bumps, small or large, Ford’s SUV is rarely comfortable. At times, the suspension is jarring.
While the ST-Line gains a sportier suspension tune than the base model, the same is true of the smaller Puma SUV that has a vastly superior ride.
Our review of the Escape Vignale reveals ride issues aren’t restricted to the ST-Line, though.
Inconsistently weighted steering, too, is out of character for Ford. A vague on-centre feel also makes freeway driving frustrating, as the steering needs almost constant attention to prevent the Escape from wandering around in its lane.
The Escape’s brakes are also too sharp on initial application, and the brake pedal generally has a wooden feel that makes it difficult to modulate pressure for smooth deceleration.
There’s a big contrast found in the CX-5, which feels like a model of driving refinement in comparison. The Mazda’s suspension provides significantly smoother progress around town and on country roads, while also bringing a relaxed suppleness on freeways that’s sorely missing from the overly rigid Escape.
The linear, well-weighted steering is more predictable in its responses than the Escape’s, the CX-5 brakes with greater smoothness, and the cabin is more insulated from wind and tyre noise (though the Escape is decent in this respect).
Both our testers found the CX-5’s driver’s seat to be much more comfortable, too. The Escape’s front seats lack extensive height adjustment, and the inability to go lower combines with a short squab to create a perch-like seating position.
The Maxx Sport’s lack of a digital speedo is hugely unhelpful, though.
The Ford Escape and Mazda CX-5 come with five-year/unlimited-kilometre warranties.
Ford offers the better servicing program. Although there isn’t a significant difference between costs – $1020 for the CX-5 over three years compared with $897 for the Escape, for example.
Ford’s mileage intervals are 50 per cent longer (15,000km v 10,000km), and the company provides complimentary pick-up/drop-off and a free loan car (at participating dealers).
Both carmakers provide roadside assistance.
The 2021 Escape is a crucial vehicle for Ford Australia – a model it hopes will at last allow it to make some inroads into Australia’s most popular auto segment.
And it’s equipped to make a good impression in the showroom with its strong list of standard features, as well as a cabin that improves in both space and presentation over its predecessor.
There’s also performance that’s well above the class average.
If Ford had matched this to the brand’s usual tradition for great-driving vehicles, the Escape would be among our most highly recommended mid-sized SUVs.
The Escape ST-Line’s case, however, is undermined by its hyperactive drivetrain, disappointing steering, and a restless ride. Insufficient seat adjustment and cushion lengths further limit comfort for families.
Refinement is one of the Mazda CX-5 Maxx Sport FWD’s best assets. A well-insulated cabin, a comfortable ride and smooth steering make for pleasant motoring.
That it overcomes the Escape ST-Line in this comparison by a relatively small margin is a reflection of other key areas – equipment list, infotainment system and engine – that feel underdone in this highly competitive segment.
A Maxx Sport AWD also makes much more sense for an extra $3000 because it brings both all-wheel drive and a bigger engine, though going up another grade for the Touring is tempting for its head-up display that compensates for the absence of a digital speedo.
The upshot is that it’s worth exploring other options in the mid-sized-SUV segment, not least the hybrid Toyota RAV4.