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The Family Wheels

Overview

Published: 06/20/2012

by William Roebuck

 With rugged summer driving in mind, we report on our experiences with three new models that make great haulers of both family and gear.

Ford Escape

Ford, like most of the Big Three automakers, came late to the party with a small SUV, but it has done an excellent job with the design and assembly of its all-new 2001 Escape. The five-passenger Escape has two configurations; a 2WD or 4WD, 2.0-litre, 130-hp, four-cylinder with a manual five-speed gearbox, or a 4WD, 200-hp V6 with a four-speed automatic transmission. The XLS is the base trim level, with the XLT variant offering many more standard features. It's the model tested.

The Escape, which underwent cold-weather testing at Thompson, Man., where temperatures reached 45 below, seems ideally suited for driving in Canadian winters, especially in the four-wheel drive configuration. The 4WD model, equipped with the Control Trac II system, has a switch on the dashboard to select either automatic 4WD or 4x4 lock modes. In automatic mode, the vehicle operates in front-wheel drive, applying power to the rear wheels if a loss of traction occurs. However, the system does not have a low-range transfer case for serious off-roading.

Another innovation Ford engineers used in its planning is one we think should be standard procedure for all automotive interior designers. They tested the placement of the controls using blindfolded occupants. It's a simple technique that other makers could use to avoid the nonsensical placement of controls in many vehicles. Drivers should be able to locate all important buttons and dials in a vehicle without taking their eyes off the road. We had no complaints about the Escape layout.

On the road, it delivers car-like road manners and performance, despite its somewhat rugged looks. The handling is taut and steering is responsive and light.

Even though this is Ford's smallest SUV in a six-vehicle lineup, the Escape's towing capacity is 3,500 lb (1,588 kg) with the V6 engine and the towing package--enough to pull jet skis, snowmobiles or a small boat. Ground clearance is 8.5 in. With the rear seats folded down, the rear cargo space totals 63 cu ft.

Seating is roomy both front and rear, with excellent legroom and headroom. Second-generation air bags are standard for front passengers, and side air bags are available. LATCH-type lower anchors and tethers for child seats are standard in the rear.

Anti-lock braking is optional on the base model, as are air conditioning, and power door locks, windows and mirrors. If you want all the toys, the XLT is the version to order, and is the only model that allows you to order the optional leather seats.

Although the Escape is certified to LEV emissions standards and Ford boasts of its low fuel consumption, one drawback to the V6 model we tested was its heavy fuel use, a fact not untypical for any SUV. The four-cylinder engine should be more economical to operate.

It's notable that the Escape is a brother to the Mazda Tribute, which was named the 2001 Best New Compact Sport Utility by the Automobile Journalists Association of Canada (AJAC) at its annual Car of the Year competition. Only a few points differentiated the two in the competition (in fact, our personal scoring at the testing event gave the Escape slightly higher marks than the Tribute).

The Escape (and the Tribute) have competent road manners with just the right amount of trucky ruggedness in their appearance. Prices range from $20,245 to $28,695, the lowest of this threesome.

Subaru Outback H6-3.0

The 2001 H6-3.0 resolves the most common criticism about the Subaru Outback -- its unexciting power curve. Even though it is a competent vehicle in almost every respect, the standard four-cylinder engine provides adequate but not peppy performance. Enter the 212-hp, six-cylinder, three-litre H6 engine, with 30 per cent more horsepower and torque than the standard Outback 2.5-litre H4.

The first thing you notice, besides its handsome appearance and good ground clearance, is the high quality of the fit and finish, both inside and out. As soon as you start driving, you feel that the handling is exceptional, aided in part by the low centre of gravity of the horizontally mounted boxer engine. Subaru's Variable Torque Distribution (VTD) full-time, all-wheel drive system performs unnoticeably.

The H6-3.0 also can be ordered with Variable Dynamics Control, with a VDC badge on the nameplate. This stability system significantly improves handling in emergency manoeuvres.

We were able to test the H6-3.0 VDC technology on a race track in Quebec. The skid control feature could be turned on or off with a toggle switch installed in the vehicles for this evaluation. Wheeling around marker cones at high speed on a wet road surface was much easier and more controlled with the VDC on. Without it, there was more apparent wheel drift -- although it was difficult, almost impossible, to make the Subaru lose control even with the system switched off.

The H6-3.0 was the winner of the Best New Intermediate Sport Utility category at the 2001 Car of the Year Awards of the Automobile Journalists Association of Canada (AJAC).

The H6-3.0 VDC features a high-end, 200-watt McIntosh stereo -- a name that will impress audiophiles. No matter how loud you crank the volume, you'll hear no distortion from the system's eleven (!) speakers. Other amenities include an eight-way power driver's seat, 16-in. aluminum alloy wheels, and leather seats. Towing capacity is 2000 lb (909 kg).

The Outback H6-3.0 comes equipped with two sunroofs. The smaller front one, over the driver, tilts up to open. The much larger second unit over the rear passenger area slides completely open. However, we found it caused annoying wind buffeting, so kept it closed most of the time.

Other complaints are minor. We found the ventilation fan speed too high even at its lowest setting. Also, it was easy to inadvertently turn on the seat heater switches, which are on the centre console.

Overall, the H6-3.0 is fun to drive and a capable performer in the city, on the highway, and on rugged cottage-country roads or snow-covered paths in winter. Plus it's quiet, refined, roomy and comfortable for everyday driving. However, even with it's new 212-hp powerplant, it's still not a really fast car -- which is not necessarily a bad thing.

The price for the Outback H6-3.0 is $39,995. The VDC model is $4,000 more. In comparison, a basic manual transmission, four-cylinder Subaru Outback Wagon lists for $31,995.

Pontiac Aztek GT FWD

A view of a 2001 Pontiac Aztek passing by usually raises comment from pedestrians and drivers alike, most often, it seems, along the line of "Is that not the ugliest thing you've ever seen?" However, proponents of the design argue that, in the least, it has a distinctive and unusual appearance in a sea of box-like sport-utes, wagons and minivans.

It's true that GM's "SRV" (for Sport Recreation Vehicle) looks like nothing else on the road today. Its design also makes it a cross-dresser of sorts. You could call it a family sedan, an SUV, a tall wagon or maybe even a minivan. On the outside, it looks like a sport-utility that's ready to tackle rough off-road terrain, although it really isn't designed for that kind of performance.

Aztek is available in SE (base) and GT configurations. Front-wheel drive and Versatrak part-time all-wheel drive versions are offered. All-speed traction control is standard. It's a worthy feature.

The ride and handling of the Aztek is competent. Grunt is provided by a 3.4-litre, 185-hp V6 engine. The Aztek's acceleration rate can best be described as leisurely (0-100 km/h takes 10.4 sec.) -- just as well too, as its ABS-equipped brakes have about the longest stopping distance of any new family sedan (100-0 km/h in 48.9 m).

Inside, the Aztek appears cavernous. The view out the rear is obstructed by a support strut that runs across the middle of the hatch windows. Because of the way the lower half of the rear hatch door folds down, it is difficult to reach in to retrieve items in the cargo area with the gate open. That makes the optional roll-out cargo tray a necessity.

The Aztek boasts a plethora of nifty features --a handy removable console cooler in the GT version, optional rear hatch tent and air mattress, lots and lots of cargo space, and good towing capacity (1,588 kg or 3500 lb) with the optional trailer package. The front buckets are supportive and comfortable, and the rear seats provide plenty of hip, head and leg room. The seating position provides a high, van-like view of the road. The rear seats are a 50/50 split design that flip and fold out of the way, and they are individually removable.

The bright red 2WD GT model we tested was priced at $32,895. The lineup ranges from $29,255 to $36,185. If you don't mind its appearance, the Aztek provides a great view of the road ahead and has plenty of room inside for both people and cargo.

William Roebuck is a member of the Automobile Journalists Association of Canada.

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