Cheap Off-Roader Potential: The First-Gen Ford Escape XLT

It's generally known as a big suburban shopping cart. But what capable off-roader isn't?

In my never-ending quest to seek out cheap, underrated platforms to do a job that more-hyped platforms are known for, I’ve read up on a wide array of cars people have ignored in the past but might want to look more closely at now. In a previous post, we talked about the original Land Rover Freelander, but I don’t know if I convinced anybody that owning one would be worth the hassle. But one platform that seems underrated for how much capability it has, and scores better with reliability, is the first-gen Ford Escape. More specifically, the XLT trim. Here’s why it could be someone’s ticket to off-tarmac weekend fun if you don’t feel like spending much money on an SUV.

An Well-Planned, Automatic Hit

In the world market, not just the US market, the Escape was introduced by Ford to compete with the likes of the Toyota RAV4, Honda CR-V, Subaru Outback, and the aforementioned Land Rover Freelander. Dearborn wanted to stake its claim in the early-aughts adventurous young folk market, and was quite successful. Over its six-year run, Ford sold just over a million Escapes according to Car Sales Base, which… damn, that’s actually higher than I had previously thought.

But it certainly makes sense! Sell a roomy, well-appointed SUV with a badge that’s shared with some sturdy, legendary trucks, and you’ll print money.

Cheap Off-Roader Potential: The First-Gen Ford Escape XLT
Image: Ford

Despite looking somewhat truckish (especially today in retrospect) the Escape had unibody construction, as opposed to bigger trucks’ body-on-frame chassis. In the U.S. it featured independent suspension at all four corners, two engine choices, and two transmission choices. In my opinion, the first-gen Escape looked great for its era and still holds up in this department. It was definitely designed with some inspiration from Land Rover, which isn’t a bad thing.

There were five trim levels available, but I’d like to focus on the top trim as that’s the one with all the off-road-ready goodies: the XLT.

The XLT included the legendary 3.0-liter Duratec V6 under its hood — you know, the one that was also in the Noble M400, just with a couple of turbos bolted on. With this engine, its four-speed automatic, and all-wheel drive, it came in around 3,500 pounds. With 200 naturally-aspirated horsepower, it actually had a not-bad power-to-weight ratio for its day.

Decent Off-Road Chops

The key source of the Escape XLT’s off-road potential lies in its full-time-four-wheel-drive-mimicking all-wheel-drive system, co-developed between Ford and legendary drivetrain gurus at Dana. Dubbed Control Trac II, it’s a front-drive centric type system that will automatically send power to the rear wheels when slip is detected under normal driving scenarios when switched to “AUTO.” However, when the system is switched over to “ON”, it locks the power split at 50/50, making less-than-ideal surfaces and gravelly climbs much easier to deal with.

Cheap Off-Roader Potential: The First-Gen Ford Escape XLT
Image: Ford, Adobe Stock (altered)

Elsewhere, the specs are respectable, but not great, compared to purpose-built, OEM off-roaders. Its approach, breakover, and departure angles are 28.5, 20, and 22, respectively.

According to John Kiewicz at Motor Trend, the first-gen Escape was decent off the tarmac, but not as good as its competition:

“Approach and departure angles, which indicate the size of mounds it can climb (or, in our case, jump) without dragging spoilers or trailer hitches, are 28.5 and 22 degrees, respectively. Neither is as generous as its competitors. (And, yes, we did root up some dirt with the under-bumper spoiler and front engine mount while leaping a dirt mogul for the photographer, although the landing after the 50-mph pavement jump was very smooth. Kids: Do not try this at home.) To the plus, both off-road and parking lot maneuvering are aided by an impressively tight turning radius.”

Luckily, there’s some potential for improvement here via the aftermarket: Old Man Emu springs and uprated dampers! Surely those would improve those figures a tad. Though, with a careful foot and eye, it looks like a stock Escape does a tad better than these angles would indicate.

The following video drives home that the Escape could indeed be turned into a decent off-roader and/or overlander:

It looks like this owner has upgraded wheels and tires, but the factory combo wasn’t bad to start out with. The stock size on 16-inch alloy wheels is 235/70/16; there are so many good tires to choose from in that size.

My Personal Experience

I actually have some personal experience with the first-gen ‘Scape -my mother bought a fully-loaded XLT in 2002. The car was fun for sure, with a nice and high seating position, torquey V6, and great looks. Hers was fire engine red and had an optional upgraded roof rack that made it look a little more adventurous. I don’t think she ever put anything on it besides Christmas trees, but who cares! She always had good all-terrain tires mounted up, too. This meant it put up with dreadful Chicagoland rain and snow without issue. The thing was a real beast for her daily 60-mile roundtrip commute.

I learned to drive in this Escape, and have fond memories of playing with its locker-mimicking all-wheel drive. Think: kid borrows his mom’s car to go to work on a snowy Saturday morning, then performs many Scandinavian-flick-initiated, 15-mph drifts en route.

Cheap Off-Roader Potential: The First-Gen Ford Escape XLT
Image: Ford (altered)

There is certainly some potential in the first-gen Escape XLT. Plus, good domestic car reliability, presumably cheap parts costs, and inexpensive consumables make it enticing over European options like the Land Rover Freelander. It’s got above-average all-wheel drive, decent power, good looks, and good suspension to boot. It’s not going to be as robust its straight-axle, body-on-frame truck siblings, but heck, that just means more clearance between the wheels anyway. And because so many of these were built, and they have no value to collectors or enthusiasts, prices are still pretty low in spite of The Great Used Car Pricing Bubble of 2021. A casual glance through a few Craigslist pages brought me a handful listed at just a few thousand bucks.

Would you wheel an Escape? You’ve got to admit, now that you’ve looked at some of these pictures, it would not look bad with knobby tires and a light bar.

Peter Nelson
Peter Nelson

Peter Nelson has been wrenching on and playing with cars since he started driving them quickly between the cones at Chicagoland autocross events in his late teens. Nowadays, he can be found wringing out his Mazda2 at tracks all over California. His writing background includes Winding Road, Donut Media, and Autolist.com. He's also an avid cyclist and '80s/'90s action film connoisseur. Contact the author here.