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The 2020 Ford Escape 1.5T is powered by a three-cylinder turbo engine.Jeremy Sinek

In this age when democracy is in jeopardy or retreat around the world, it seems small-minded to take issue with how my fellow jurors voted in the 2020 North American Car, Utility and Truck of the Year awards. Truth be told, I do fully endorse the eventual winner. But I also think the electorate got it wrong when they didn’t even vote the Ford Escape into the finals.

The Ford Motor Company did reach the final three, but with the Lincoln Aviator. Nothing against the Aviator per se, but in the climate-emergency era, how relevant is a large $75,000-plus luxury SUV that few can ever afford?

The Escape, on the other hand, will sell in the millions. By the mere fact that the Escape is a compact, its carbon footprint is already quite modest, and Ford has amplified that with fuel-saving powertrains. For those who don’t care, you can still buy an Escape with a quick-and-quiet 260-horsepower, 2.0-litre turbo engine. But for those who do care, there are not one but two hybrid options – self-charging and (coming this spring) plug-in.

And then there’s the 1.5-litre turbo mainstream base engine. Although the 1.5 is standard on most trims, its appearance at the media preview drive last fall was frustratingly brief, so when a test sample became available on home ground, we seized the chance to get better acquainted.

The previous Escape also offered a 1.5-litre engine, but this totally new mill totes three cylinders instead of four, partnered with a transmission that grows the ratio count from six to eight. The combo of fewer cylinders and more gears, along with meaningfully trimmed vehicle weight and other measures, lowers fuel consumption by 16 per cent, according to the combined figure from Natural Resources Canada (20 per cent in city driving).

The three-banger is standard on the S, SE and SEL trims, each with front-wheel-drive standard. Pricing starts at $28,549, with all-wheel-drive a $1,500 stand-alone option. My SEL AWD test stickered at $35,049 base and came to the table with $3,350 worth of options, most notably a panoramic-vista glass roof ($1,750) and an $850 package that adds voice-activated navigation and adaptive cruise control with stop-and-go to the Co-Pilot360 driver-assist suite, which is standard on all Escapes.

Driver-assist and communitainment technologies are well up to expectations in 2020 Ford Escape 1.5T.Jeremy Sinek/The Globe and Mail

Despite all the technology Ford threw at it, the Escape 1.5T is not – at least in official “lab” tests – the most fuel-frugal among its non-hybrid peers. But it’s close – 8.3 litres/100 kilometres combined for the AWD versus the Honda CR-V’s 8.1 and the Subaru Forester’s and Toyota RAV4’s 8.2. Over a late-November week of mostly short-trip suburban duty, I achieved a real-world 10.4 litres/100 km – pretty decent for the conditions.

Don’t let the engine’s unusual three-cylinder configuration put you off. It sounds different than a four but, I would argue, not worse. Properly balanced like this one, a triple can be surprisingly smooth and avoids the gritty harshness that can afflict four-cylinder engines. With fewer “bangs” per revolution, it seems slower-revving than it is; 2,100 rpm on the tach at 120 km/h – already quite relaxed – feels more like 1,600 rpm.

The engine can even drop down to two-cylinder operation on light loads at low speeds, at which point you do sense a low-frequency throb to confirm you’re running at maximum miserliness, but it’s not offensive. Further frugality is achieved by an auto stop/start system that does its thing with exceptional seamlessness.

The Escape may be missing a cylinder, but its 1.5-litre displacement matches its four-cylinder turbocharged rivals, and likewise its power (181 hp) and torque (190 lb.-ft.) are comparable both with other turbo 1.5s and with other competitors’ larger-displacement non-turbo engines. Numbers aside, it drives well. Turbo lag is imperceptible in routine driving and minimal even on a full-bore launch (though we did experience an odd momentary falter in its foot-flat power delivery as the rpm passed through 3,000 rpm).

The dual-clutch transmission shifts beautifully in test-track mode and does a decent job the rest of the time; still, it’s not quite as smooth as it could be, as underlined when we drove a DCT-equipped Kia the week after.

Powertrain aside, the Escape 1.5 presents the same combo of goodness and (a few) glitches as the other models we have already covered. It’s now one of the roomiest CUVs in its class, with fore-aft sliding rear seats and a height-adjustable cargo deck to maximize versatility. Driver-assist and communitainment technologies are well up to expectations. Steering response isn’t quite as vivid as the previous model’s, which may, for some drivers, actually have been too responsive. That said, it still handles well enough to satisfy engaged drivers while preserving fair ride comfort.

The interior trim is acceptable, though the starter button is at an odd angle.Jeremy Sinek

Some other reviewers have dissed the Escape’s interior trim, though it seemed acceptable on the highish-trim SEL model. One thing I did notice is the oddly angled starter button, which requires an awkward twist of the wrist to push it cleanly. But unless you have mobility issues in your right hand, that shouldn’t be a deal-breaker.

With all its other powertrain options, we already knew the Escape was back in the game in a big way. And while the 1.5T engine isn’t a game-changer, it’s a solid effort that will support Escape’s bid to reclaim crossover-sales leadership.

Still, for about the same money as this lightly “loaded” SEL, you could get a top-trim Escape Titanium Hybrid. Its fuel consumption is 30 per cent lower than the 1.5T combined, 38 per cent lower in city driving. I could vote for that.

2020 Ford Escape SEL 1.5T AWD

  • Base price/ As tested: $28,549/$38,499
  • Engine: 1.5-litre three-cylinder turbocharged
  • Transmission/drive: 8-speed automatic, all-wheel-drive
  • Fuel consumption (L/100 km): 8.9, city; 7.6, highway
  • Alternatives: Chevrolet Equinox, Honda CR-V, Hyundai Santa Fe, Hyundai Tucson, Jeep Cherokee, Kia Sportage, Mazda CX-5, Mitsubishi Outlander, Nissan Rogue, Subaru Forester, Toyota RAV4, Volkswagen Tiguan

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