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Ford's Breakaway SUV: The Escape

Ford is selling Explorers, Expeditions and Excursions at the rate about equal to that of ice cream on the Fourth of July. And when you take into account the number of F-Series trucks that it is selling, the company is clearly the leader in putting bodies on frames. But now it is making a slight shift in direction with its Escape: a compact sport ute with unibody construction. Here's a look.
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That's what H. Paul Linden, project manager, Compact Sport Utilities, Truck Vehicle Center, Ford Motor Co., says is the carryover at the Ford Kansas City Assembly Plant (Claycomo, MO), where the Contour/Mystique had been produced and where a truck like no other in the extensive line-up of the truck-producing leader is now being built: the 2001 Ford Escape.

According to Linden, the body shop and paint shop for the Escape are brand new because building sport utility vehicles is not like building sedans, with considerations and ramifications going all the way to the extent of a greater number of tire/wheel combos for the Escape as compared to the cars (which means that the delivery and attachment points had to be rethought for the Escape—and that's just one example of the difference).

Although the Escape is a truck, not a car, there is a difference between it and the rest of the vehicles in the Ford sport ute line-up that it is joining: the Escape has unibody construction, not body-on-frame, which is the way that Ford builds everything else, from the Explorer to the Excursion. Which means, in effect, that the Escape is, well, more car-like than anything else in the Ford line up.

All of which is beginning to sound somewhat confusing:

  • Escape is a truck, which is replacing the car assembly in a plant where they are also making F-Series trucks
  • Because Escape is a truck, there are manifold manufacturing considerations, all the way to requiring paint that is more chip-resistant than that used on sedans
  • Escape is unlike a Ford truck, in that it has unibody construction.

International Engineering.
The Escape is an all-new platform for Ford: it isn't a variant of anything else that the company builds. It is, however, being shared withMazda, which will be offering a version called the "Tribute."

An interesting thing about the Escape and the Tribute. According to Keith Takasawa, chief platform engineer for the Escape, who began on what was then U204 in November 1996, the program is unique—at least so far as he is aware, and he's been in the business for more than 20 years—in that there were initially two separate groups of engineers, those from Ford and those from Mazda, both of which were working on small SUVs. Both teams had done advanced engineering on their vehicles, on chassis, powertrain, and the like. "The concepts were similar," Takasawa says, "but there were differences." So what happened is that in late '96 the two teams were consolidated into one and the two separate vehicles became a single platform.

Takasawa, who'd been on the Explorer program, says that the different aspect of this program is that ordinarily, when there are two teams from separate companies, one of the two companies has the lead, and personnel from the other are essentially additional resources, but with this program, there was a consolidation of engineers on the single platform. Takasawa and his crew moved from Dearborn to Mazda's offices in Hiroshima.

In addition to Kansas City, the vehicles are going to be built by Mazda in its plant in Hofu, Japan. The Kansas City plant will do all of the left-hand steering versions; Hofu will handle the right. The launch in Hofu will occur during the fourth quarter of 2000.

Structurally Sound.
Why unibody? Takasawa says there are a number of reasons. For one, it provides better package efficiency than body-on-frame. That is, the exterior dimensions are compact (overall length, width, and height are 173, 70.1, and 67 in., respectively; the wheelbase is 103.1 in.), yet the interior is size-able, at 133.9 cu. ft. (think Explorer-like). (The compact length and width are a result of a consideration of the driving requirements in places like Europe and Asia, which are generally more compact-aware than drivers in the U.S.)

Then, Takasawa points out, there is the rigidity that the unibody provides, which translates into safety.

According to Paul Linden, the disc drives were really humming as extensive computer-aided engineering (CAE) was performed to model the structure's crash energy management capabilities. He cites, for example, the front fender reinforcement that was designed, a boxed section that is a comparatively complex weldment. Its purpose is to direct crash energy both up to the roof and down to the lower rail frame. And, of course, each of the four doors is equipped with steel side intrusion beams.

Another aspect of the unibody: it permits a lower step-in height compared to conventional SUVs (yes, there are optional step bars available for the Escape, but ingress and egress are fine without them).

New By Design.
Although the Escape is an all-new platform, there is one aspect of the vehicle that is a carryover from other vehicles: the engine. There is the standard 2.0-liter, four-cylinder Zetec engine, which was fitted into the Contour/Mystique; there is the optional 3.0-liter, six-cylinder Duratec engine, which is used for the Taurus/Sable. Linden points out, however, that due to the application of these engines in the sport ute setup, there were necessary modifications, such as both being revised for better low-end torque and new composite intake manifolds for the Zetec and an improved oil pan (higher strength aluminum; deeper strengthening ribs) for the Duratec.

Other than that, the Escape is said to be all new. Paul Linden makes an interesting observation as to why this is actually necessitated by the architecture of the Escape: "Car parts aren't strong enough, and truck parts—because the trucks are body-on-frame—didn't fit." He adds, "Even the battery is new."

Apparently, the only sheet metal that is shared between the Escape and the Tribute is the roof.

On May 11, 2000, a week before Ford had journalists put the Escape through its paces on roads both paved and marginal, the Ford Motor Company held its annual meeting, during which SUVs became a point of some contention. This is because of observations in the company's own "Corporate Citizenship Report" that indicate that in terms of safety and the environment, the sport utes are not exactly the best of citizens.

However, it is worth noting that long before that report was released, there were plans for the 2003 model year Escape, which will be offered as a hybrid electric vehicle (HEV). This will combine the four-cylinder gasoline engine with an electric drivetrain so that not only will there be improved fuel efficiency (calculated to be about 40 mpg in urban stop-and-go conditions), but also emissions that meet California's Super Ultra Low Emission Vehicle (SULEV) classification and Europe's Stage IV emissions.