Following a mild refresh last year, the slickly-designed 2018 Ford Escape adds a new trim level – the SEL. But its sharp handling, generous cargo area, and wide choice of tech features are offset by a confusing dash, overly firm seats, and EPA numbers we find tough to hit in real-world driving.

Best Value

Escape pricing for 2018 starts at $24,845 for a front-wheel drive base S trim and runs up to $37,770 for a fully-optioned, all-wheel-drive Titanium model finished in available Ruby Red Metallic. In all, buyers can choose from four trim (S, SE, SEL, and Titanium), each assigned one of three engines (a normally-aspirated 2.0-liter four-cylinder and two turbocharged four-cylinder engines displacing 1.5-liters and 2.0-liters), mated to a capable, but aging, six-speed automatic.

We'd skip both the base and SE trims and opt for the new SEL with its 1.5-liter turbo and standard features that include alloy wheels, fog lights, easier-to-clean leather-trimmed heated front seats, dual-zone automatic climate control, a power liftgate, halogen projector headlights with LED signature lighting, a reverse sensing system, and Sync3 with Apple CarPlay, Android Auto, and satellite radio. The SEL also affords access to an AWD drivetrain plus a number of advanced safety features.

Here's how we'd build it:

  • Model: 2018 Ford Escape SE
  • Engine: 1.5-liter turbocharged four-cylinder
  • Output: 179 hp / 177 lb-ft
  • Transmission:Six-speed automatic
  • Drivetrain: All-wheel drive
  • MPG: 22 City / 28 Hwy
  • Options: Intelligent 4WD System ($1,350), Safe and Smart Package ($1,295, adaptive cruise control, forward collision warning, automatic emergency braking, auto-dimming rearview mirror, automatic high beams, blind-spot monitoring, rear cross-traffic alert, lane keeping assist with driver alert, rain-sensing wipers, windshield wiper de-icer).
  • Base Price: $29,000 (including a $995 destination fee)
  • Best Value Price:$31,645

Performance

The Escape's polished, capable handling and excellent body control is nearly as good as the class-leading Mazda CX-5. It's especially impressive when equipped with the 2.0-liter turbo-four's 245 horsepower that offers ample low-end torque, quick acceleration, and effortless passing even at freeway speeds.

On the flip side, the six-speed automatic is a gear or three behind cutting edge, the base 2.5-liter four-cylinder is the slowest and least fuel-efficient, and the 1.5-liter turbo, though stronger at low revs, is nearly as rough and loud as the 2.5-liter. Finally, despite grille shutters and start/stop tech for the turbo-fours, we've found it difficult to hit the EPA numbers for all three engines in real world driving.

Style

The Escape's sleek sheet metal strikes the perfect balance between an aggressive SUV and sporty hatchback – a look that was further enhanced with a cleaner-looking front fascia that was added in 2017. That look is wrapped around an intimate cabin that features a heavily-sculpted dash, good materials, and firm, supportive seats.

But all is not perfect, as a plethora of little black buttons looks dated on a dash that steals knee room from front seat occupants. For some, the seats might be overly firm, while cargo space of 34 cubic feet behind the back seats is only midpack. Moreover, the panoramic sunroof slices into the headroom of an interior that, even without it, can feel tight.

The Best and Worst Things

The 2018 Escape's smooth ride and taut handling stand out in a class that largely consists of plain vanilla people movers.

The overly-complex dash robs knee room from front seat passengers in an interior that already feels confining.

Right For? Wrong For?

Sharp handling, nicely-weighted steering, and a polished ride should attract enthusiasts who need a versatile crossover.

While a rearview camera is standard, advanced safety features are unavailable on the base trim and are a $1,295 option across the rest of the lineup, which could be a turnoff for safety-focused buyers.

The Bottom Line

Despite a busy dash and middling fuel economy, the 2018 Escape is a top pick in the compact crossover class thanks to taught handling, a slick design, and a wide range of models and features.