As a general rule, you and I know that sport-utility vehicles are all about the utility, not the sport.  That goes for design as much as dynamics.

The typical SUV is a two-box creation inspired by 19th century covered wagons. Back then, the horses were Box 1, the wagon Box 2. Today, one box is for the engine bits, the other for people and cargo. If you ply a car designer with a few cocktails, as I have done, they’ll tell you in a tipsy moment that for the most part they hate styling SUVs. You might as well design hammers.

Other than the undersized touchscreen, the cabin is a triumph.

You see, they’re creatively handcuffed. When it comes to an SUV, Jackson Pollock need not apply. SUV stylists must think in the box, literally.

Thus, an SUV designer satisfies whatever creative urges are left by fighting for the biggest wheels possible. The more daring designers try to play with rooflines; the size and shape of the windows – the “greenhouse”; and, whatever creases, indentations and curves they can carve into the body, the sheetmetal. That’s it.

Not surprisingly, SUVs from Korea to Kalamazoo, from the British Midlands to Munich, for the most part look very much alike. Yes, yes, you can slap a roundel on the front end of a BMW X5, but it’s still two boxes.

Land Rover’s chief stylist, the sometimes-prickly but quite creative Jerry McGovern of the bespoke suits, took a chance on the slanting roof of the Range Rover Evoque, only to be roundly slammed for the small rear windows and the skimpy rear headroom. As one wag noted, the Evoque looks like the Jolly Green Giant sat on it.

A look across the SUV universe today tells us that Mercedes-Benz has completely given up on SUV design. The GLC, for instance, is so painfully dull, I swear a chimp with Crayons could design something better. The G-wagon is just a big, scary box with a loud engine that Hollywood directors use as the bad guy’s killer rig in Bourne movies, Sons of Anarchy TV shows and the like.

The digital instrument cluster, reconfigurable, is oh so European.

This brings us to Ford Motor, which has unapologetically turned itself into a pickup and SUV company, with a nostalgic dash of Mustang on the side. Heck, even the coming electrified Mustang-E is a crossover/SUV/hatchback confection that is indistinguishable from a fleet of SUVs already in showrooms around the world.

My point is, Ford has been doing SUVs for decades – Explorers, Escapes, Expeditions and all those Lincoln derivatives, too. Ford had a chance to flex some creative muscles with the remake of the Escape for 2020 – to do something amazing, something that drew on the past but stretched into the future. Ford declined.

Understandably so, I’m afraid.

The Escape is Ford’s second-most important model, behind only the F-Series pickup. For a normal year, Ford in Canada will sell north of 40,000 Escapes and 250,000-plus in the U.S. In addition, Ford delayed and diddled around with the Escape redesign, letting the previous model grow stale.

All these factors and more put tremendous pressure on Ford to get the new Escape right versus rivals like the Toyota RAV4, Honda CR-V, Hyundai Tucson and Santa Fe, Volkswagen Tiguan, Mazda CX-5 and more.

On top of all that, add the disastrous launch of the latest Explorer. The Explore launch was a textbook catastrophe that slammed Ford’s earnings last year. So much so, the president of its auto unit was fired (or took early retirement, if you know what I mean).

The encouraging news, if you’re in Ford’s corner, is that the 2020 Escape, the fourth-generation Escape, is a perfectly acceptable little rig. It has all the modern technology you’d expect, a robust new platform that does wonders in many ways, it’s roomier (20 mm longer wheelbase and track), lighter (by 90 kg) and has a very, very nice cabin, where the materials are a spectacular upgrade over the old Escape. The new platform has allowed Ford’s suspension engineers to improve road manners and ride comfort, rather than busy themselves tuning out the sloppiness of the old platform.

Dial up drive modes.

What’s than mean? You should enjoy driving this Escape. I did. In particular, the top model allows you to play with different drive modes, including Sport, and put to work the larger P225/55R19 tires. In Sport, the throttle response is quicker, the shift pattern more aggressive and the steering has more weight.

Power? You can get a new 1.5-litre turbocharged three-cylinder EcoBoost engine (180 horsepower/177 lb.-ft. of torque) with a 909 kg tow rating. Or a tweaked version of the old 2.0-lite EcoBoost four-cylinder (250 hp/275-lb.-ft. of torque; tow rating 1,591 kg). The only gearbox is a new eight-speed automatic that drives either the front or all four wheels.

There are also two hybrid models, one of which is a plug-in with 58 km or range, best case. Both have a 2.5-litre Atkinson-cycle four-cylinder and a continuously variable transmission. The regular hybrid has a net output of 198 hp, the plug-in 209 hp. The normal hybrid has an 880 km range. That’s a big deal.

Is there something more Ford’s designers could have done with the two-box SUV? Surely.

The plug-in’s calling card is urban electromobility that allows you to choose Auto (whereby the mix of EV and gas is managed by a computer); electric-only EV Now; EV Later (saving the battery for the right time); and EV Charge (the gas engine charges the battery). The plug-in is standard for the Titanium, though you can opt out in favor of the 2.0-litre four.

Ford sells four Escape trim levels, S SE, SEL and Titanium ($26,965-$38,833). They all have cabins that look and feel vastly superior to the 2019 model. But be careful. You’ll get well north of $30,000 and nearing $40,000 if you opt for the best stuff, including the available 12.3-inch reconfigurable instrument cluster.

The undersized eight-inch touchscreen infotainment screen is clear and functional and includes a Wi-Fi hotspot, Apple CarPlay/Android Auto connectivity, and a back-up camera. Ford’s Co-Pilot360 suite of active safety assists is standard on all models. Spend more to get a full array of electronic goodies that bring the Escape very close to a self-driving machine. Not quite there, but close.

Alas, visually, the 2020 Escape is nothing special: two boxes, a fairly tidy nose, and some gentle shaping of the side windows of the greenhouse. That was a day’s work for Ford’s designers.

Knowing Ford as I have for nearly four decades, the top managers who made the final design call chose to be Midwest safe. I am sorry for that. But then, Ford’s outgoing CEO is a former furniture salesman whose main qualifications included expertise in Steelcase office goods and a closeness to the Ford family, who control the voting stock. William Clay Ford Jr., Bill Ford, in particular.

I suppose the typical Escape buyer isn’t looking for GQ styling at the expense of Home Hardware utility. But why not try for both? I mean, the cabin here is very 2020, while the exterior is stuck in 2010.


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