Cars

Dueling Compact SUVs: Escape vs. RAV4

COMPETITORS: The all-new Ford Escape (top) is the compact SUV everybody is talking about, but Toyota’s RAV4 (bottom) provides some healthy contrasts.
COMPETITORS: The all-new Ford Escape (top) is the compact SUV everybody is talking about, but Toyota’s RAV4 (bottom) provides some healthy contrasts.

The Ford Escape, its design unchanged for 11 years, has finally been revamped. The Escape’s main competitor in the compact SUV market, the Toyota RAV4, has also been redesigned for 2013, although the changes aren’t as dramatic. The two cars compete in the same vehicle segment but there are some surprising differences between the two that could influence your buying decision.

The RAV4 offered a choice of two engines in 2012: a 2.5-liter inline four-cylinder engine with 179 hp, or an optional 3.5-liter V-6 providing 269 hp, a generous heap of power in a vehicle like this. But for 2013, the V-6 bowed out, leaving only the 179 hp four and a six-speed automatic transmission. Here’s the thing about the Toyota RAV4’s engine: It’s competent, predictable, and not terribly exciting. Fuel mileage for the 179 hp four comes in at 22/29 mpg city/highway, certainly comparable to the 30 mpg you’ll see in most Escapes.

The Escape does have that cool liftgate.
The Escape does have that cool liftgate.

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With the new Escape, Ford delivers a nice range of four-cylinder engines that provide excellent power and fuel economy. The least expensive—and frankly, the one you won’t want—is the carryover 2.5-liter four from the old Escape. It’s a serviceable engine, but doesn’t offer the power for which most buyers are looking. Many will select the 1.6-liter turbocharged four that we sampled, with 176 hp that delivers an EPA-estimated 22 mpg in the city and 30 mpg on the highway. The torque is another story altogether, though. The Escape puts out 184-lb.ft. of torque, and it peaks at a low 2,500 rpm. The RAV4 has a lower 172-lb.ft., and it doesn’t arrive until 4,100 rpm. It’s a difference that’s immediately recognizable when you pull away from a stop.

The two cars show a real difference in towing capacities. Someone who buys a vehicle like this often purchases a receiver hitch with it to haul around ATVs, utility trailers, or snowmobiles. The RAV4 does provide enough power to haul a trailer, but one that weighs no more than 1,500 pounds. That’s plenty to tote a small travel trailer or a utility trailer with a couple of ATVs, but people who buy vehicles like this may be looking for more.

On the other hand, the Escape’s towing capacity starts at 1,500 pounds, even with the bottom-feeder 2.5-liter four. From there, it adds 500 pounds with the 1.6-liter turbo four, and doubles the RAV4’s capacity at 3,000 pounds when you select the 2.0-liter four. That’s enough to haul an open aluminum trailer with a race-prepped Miata to Lime Rock. It’s a big difference.

Let’s compare the interiors. If you’re buying a compact versus a full-size SUV, you’re probably commuting to work in it. Here’s where the RAV4 provides a better experience. There’s nothing fancy about the Toyota, that’s for sure, but it’s competent and comfortable. The RAV4 has a 2.5-cubic-foot advantage over the Escape in passenger volume. That doesn’t seem like a lot, but when you’re carrying four people, that matters.

The RAV4 is slightly roomier, with some elegant appointments; its Bluetooth system is also more reliable.
The RAV4 is slightly roomier, with some elegant appointments; its Bluetooth system is also more reliable.

The place you’ll notice the difference most is in the Escape’s front seat footwell. The pedals take up a lot of space, so it’s hard to stretch out your legs while maintaining a safe grip on the wheel, even with the telescoping wheel out to its maximum length.

The Escape does provide two features that you’ll want to spend some time exploring before you decide to purchase. The first is the hands-free power liftgate. In general, power liftgates can be annoying because when you’re in a hurry or your hands are full, you need to wait while the motor cycles and opens the gate, and you still need to either pull a handle or press a button on the key fob. The hands-free tailgate on the Escape allows you to wave a foot under the bumper, and as long as you have the key fob in your pocket, the tailgate opens automatically. It’s a nice feature you should expect to see on a whole bunch of SUVs in the near future. The RAV4 has a power liftgate, as well, but it operates by the fob that might be in your pocket when you have two arms full of groceries.

The other thing to spend some time with is the Escape’s radio interface. There’s a lot you can do with voice commands, which is nice, but the touch screen is maddeningly frustrating at times, and at least on the satellite radio channel, the station tuning buttons hardly work at all. We pushed the button a dozen times before the radio caught up.

One more frustration is the Escape’s MyFordTouch smartphone interface. There have been a lot of problems since its introduction and, while there are improvements, it’s still not there yet. Ostensibly, once you’ve gone through the pairing procedure, the system should recognize your phone the instant you enter the vehicle. We started the car and drove half a mile before the phone was ever recognized. It’s nice to have features like this when they work, but they need to work 100 percent of the time.

The RAV4 has Bluetooth connectivity, which allows most of the same functions of the Sync system, but the pairing procedure and the connectivity worked flawlessly every time we entered the vehicle, for both phone and audio functions. It’s simpler, and, frankly, works better than the Ford system.

Features are similar, but the way the vehicles’ are packaged and priced might have you leaning toward the Toyota. The base price of the RAV4 Limited AWD is $29,225, which is also its fully equipped price. The Escape SEL AWD starts at $30,815. But if you add in the sunroof that’s standard in the RAV4, the price climbs to $32,210 in the Ford. It’s a bigger opening, but it comes with a $1,395 price tag.

Clearly, there are a lot of considerations when choosing one of these two competitors. If it’s price alone, the RAV4 wins when you equip it the way most people are going to. Power and towing capacity are going to make the difference for a lot of people, though, and the Escape wins that contest. The Toyota RAV4 isn’t as exciting as the Escape to drive or to look at, yet there’s something to be said for its functionality. It just works, and that’s what a lot of people who buy small crossover SUVs are interested in. Spend some time in both and you can decide which is better for the kind of driving you do every day.

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