Revised 2013 Ford Escape sports a much sleeker form than its predecessor./

Americans love SUVs. Nearly one out of every three vehicles sold in the last year was some sort of SUV. SUVs are particularly popular with drivers who face varying road and weather conditions or regularly carry a mix of passengers and cargo. The raised ground clearance, spacious cargo bays, and four-wheel drive or all-wheel drive further enhance these vehicles’ cred.

This week’s test vehicle, the Ford Escape, is one of our all-time favorite SUVs. It presents athletic driving dynamics, an inviting cabin and plenty of useful high-tech features. The Escape is not only America’s best-selling SUV; it also stands as one of the top entries in a segment that’s already packed with excellent choices.

The Escape was first introduced in 2001 and has been a fixture on American roads with its first-generation Ford Explorer looks. It has also remained a top seller despite receiving only minor cosmetic and mechanical updates all those years.

For 2013, Ford has finally given the Escape some major makeovers. Judging by our experience driving the Escape throughout the Washington metro area in the last week, it looks as if it was worth the wait. It raises the bar higher with better fuel economy (Mpg: 21 city/33 hwy), car-like road manners and more gadgets than many luxury cars.

The 2013 Escape marks a complete departure from the crossover SUV it replaces. Instead of the tall, truckish persona, the new Escape’s exterior is sleeker and more stylish – a Ford Focus hatch lookalike in a tall form. Although it looks smaller to the eye, the new Escape is nearly four inches longer, one inch wider and rides on a longer wheelbase than the last generation.

The Escape has also been lowered slightly to improve on-road manners. The SUV’s sleek, curve-like roof does not sacrifice cargo volume and it carries more stuff than the previous model. It provides 68.1 cubic feet of space behind the first row and 34.3 cubic feet behind the second row. This compares to the 2012 Escape’s 67.2 cubic feet behind first row and 31.4 cubic feet behind the second row.

Three four-cylinder engines are available, and each comes connected to a conventional six-speed automatic. One is a 168-horsepower 2.5-liter engine carried over from last year, but it’s only offered on the base model. The mainstream choice is a new turbocharged 1.6-liter. It puts out 178 hp and returns an EPA-estimated 33 mpg on the highway. Drivers who want quicker acceleration can opt for the 240-hp turbocharged four-cylinder, which effectively replaces the V6 in the old Escape.

The old Escape didn’t just look like a little truck, it drove like one too. Blessed with the Focus platform, the new Escape handles itself quite well on winding Virginia country roads and on tight city streets in the District of Columbia. I was particularly impressed with the Escape’s poise through off-on rain showers during a drive on Virginia’s Blue Ridge Parkway. In a lesser vehicle, enjoying the spectacular views of Appalachia’s diverse beauty would have been less of a concern, with most of my energy sternly fixed on keeping the vehicle on the road.

Feature wise, the Escape offers equipment that no other small SUV offers. A hands-free lift gate power enabled by motion technology opening systems is quite fascinating. A gentle kicking motion under the center of the rear bumper activates, unlocks and raises the liftgate when the driver has the Escape key fob. This allows quick and easy access to the cargo area without needing to set down packages. The same process closes the hatch. The parallel parking assist system detects an available parallel parking space and automatically steers the vehicle into the space. Other technology automatically slows the vehicle when it’s cornering too fast.

Pricing ranges from $22,470 for the base model to $35,120 for the Titanium edition.

(Photo: Revised 2013 Ford Escape sports a much sleeker form than its predecessor./ Photo courtesy Ford Motor Company)

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