by Clint Burgess

As suburban as Spokane is, there are plenty of rugged surroundings that provide the perfect terrain for an SUV. If bumpy back roads and desolate dirt trails aren't enough for you, just take a spin downtown and brave the potholes -- or the ruts on I-90. This is where the Ford Escape comes in real handy.

All this treacherous territory is the perfect match for Ford's somewhat recent addition to their already impressive lineup of sport utility vehicles. For years, Ford has been synonymous with SUVs because of their Explorer. But as of 2001, Ford has been producing the Escape to much acclaim. The body is smaller, the look is stylish and it gets the job, large or small, done. The Escape is as economical a vehicle as you can find in its class. At a base price of $23,545, it's easy on the pocketbook as well. The interior is designed with thrill seekers in mind. Heavy-duty cloth seats and lots of easy-to-clean vinyl and plastic are the materials of choice. This makes mud and rocks a breeze to get rid of. While space is limited, there is seating for five and moderate storage space in the back. The Escape also scores bonus points for a full-size spare tire and a six-disc CD changer that holds the discs in the dash, not the trunk.

The Escape is perfect for commuting as well. Not much larger than a standard-size sedan, you won't have any trouble with this baby in a parallel parking situation. I found the ride in the Escape to be incredibly smooth. Oftentimes, SUVs tend to ride a little on the rough side, but the Escape cruises effortlessly on and off the road. I did find lane changes a bit cumbersome due to blind spots, but familiarizing yourself with mirrors in a bit larger vehicle takes a little time. The niceties that Ford is known for are all present on the XLT model that I tested. Remote keyless entry, dual front airbags, a V-6 engine that delivers power but still offers 20 MPG in the city and 25 MPG on the highway. Ford has put together the complete package on this one.

"We're not just about trucks," says Dave Biggs of Empire Ford. "There's a lot of car energy out there." While Biggs has been in Spokane for 22 years, he's been with Empire Ford since 2003 and offers some insight to the dealership and Ford as a player in the 21st century vehicle market. The dealership wrapped up a complete renovation in April of this year. "We really had a drive to stay downtown. With this type of franchise, we knew this was the place to be," Biggs says. "We're the only dealership in the Northwest to get an allotment of the new Ford GTs." Even at $200,000 a pop, these mean machines, with all the luxurious appointments, will be selling themselves. With a retro 1964 Mustang set to come off the assembly line and constant production of award-winning vehicles like the stalwart F-150 pickup -- Ford is not resting on its past success.

As for the Escape, the numbers speak for themselves. Empire Ford is already sold out of its 2004s and is tapping into its 2005s. Demand will be even higher in the fall when Ford rolls out the Escape hybrid, the only gas/electric SUV in its class. Biggs also warned me when I took the Escape off the lot, "People who come in and drive them usually buy them."

Publication date: 07/15/04

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