Last updated: October 19, 2016
Pros: Basic remote operations, location and parking reminder, integrated infotainment system, phone/tablet apps, upcoming upgrades
Cons: Doesn't include 4G WiFi hot spot, lacks remote start and diagnostic monitoring
Regardless of whether car makers are making an econobox, utility vehicle or a sports coupe, every generation of vehicle leapfrogs its predecessor in terms of fitting into the emerging Internet of Things landscape. Ford's Escape is no exception.
Ford has put together one of the more advanced digital car systems in its 2016 Escape. While there are some hiccups, the coupe pushes the way drivers will connect their cars to IoT devices, leaving some automakers in the dust.
To start, the car is equipped with Ford's Sync 3 system, which melds an infotainment display with powerful tablet and phone apps to let you take a modicum of control of the car. While the repertoire of available actions on a 2016 Escape Titanium 4WD is more limited than those available on a Chevrolet Equinox and others, this is a good start and Ford has a technological ace up its sleeve.
Sync 3 is a big step up from Ford's earlier efforts in adding digital features. The Sony infotainment console integrates the stereo, climate control, phone and navigation, then goes a step farther with one of the most effective voice control systems I've seen or heard. You can tell the system to play a music track, dial a call or grab a phone number from your phone. Sync 3 can even read text messages to you. It can't, however adjust the volume by voice command, a small wrinkle. But conveniently, there are volume buttons easily reachable on the steering wheel.
Behind the scenes Sync 3 has gone through a big upgrade with a 1.7GHz ARM Cortex 15-based processor versus a 600MHz Cortex 8-based one on earlier MyFord touch systems. Based on QNX software, Sync 3 is a big step forward as well from the often clunky previous Windows-based system.
What you'll notice is that the car's 8-inch screen now has capacitive (instead of restive) touch interactivity. This makes it much more accurate and instantaneous, and you can now use gestures like pinching on a map to zoom in.
Escape's app a breeze to install
The key to Escape's smarts is the Ford Owner app. With free versions, downloadable for both Android and iOS, the digital manual requires about 17MB of storage space on your mobile device, plus takes just a minute to install. For those living in caves or Luddites preferring PCs or Macs, the Ford Owner portal (http://owner.ford.com) is its online functional equivalent.
Unfortunately, the iOS version was made for iPhones. On an iPad, the manual awkwardly displays only across half the screen. Over the course of a week, I used the portal as well as a Samsung Galaxy S6 phone, iPad Pro and a Nexus 9 tablet. All performed well, and were easy to access.
To link the app to the car, you need to either enter the Vehicle Identification Number (VIN) code or snap a photo of it for the app to decipher after installing the software. A word of warning: Prepare for an exercise in frustration if you try to scan the VIN in bright sunshine.
After creating an account with Ford, you can give the car a nickname. Fun. (I called mine, Digiwagon.) Plus, the account requires a fairly strong password for connecting with the car. However, on the downside, there's no authentication email—as is the case with Verizon's HUM automated service—so you might not be as secure as you think from potential hackers.
Assistance at a glance
The app's main screen is simplicity itself with five major categories that you can horizontally swipe across: Parking Reminder, Roadside Assistance, Support, Maintenance Schedule and Dealer Locator. It allows you to perform rudimentary tasks like look at the car's scheduled maintenance requirements, learn how to use the keyless entry fob or uncover out the ins and outs of its Sync technology.
There are also articles on popular topics, like linking your phone up with Escape's the car's Bluetooth. You probably won't need this particular article as the car has thoughtful audio prompts to walk you through this step.
In an emergency, Ford's 911 Assist can cleverly request aid by autodialing through your connected phone. The app can then not only tell first responders where you are, but also report if air bags have been deployed, and the type of crash.
The Parking Reminder app? That's a feature you'll use every day. I got a notification on both my phone reminding me when the parking meter was about to expire. The program even directed me to where I'd parked the car. Working off the Escape's GPS system, directions were only approximately correct, off by as much as a block or two. However, the longer you let the system orient itself, the better the location reading.
Once connected, Sync 3 can work with several phone apps: streaming Spotify music from my phone to the car's stereo, even connecting to National Public Radio and The Wall Street Journal's radio channel. If that's not enough, Ford has a small variety of add-on apps that link to Google Cloud Play so you can stream your own music—plus one that lets you order a Domino's pizza from the car's display. (Where the pie will be delivered? That's up to you.)
Still a work in progress, Sync 3 is currently a step behind GM's OnStar-based automation and monitoring system that installed on the Equinox. Ford's Owner app also lacks things like showing the actual engine parameters and maintenance status of the car, such as how many miles to the next oil change interval. Plus, you can't remotely start and turn off the Escape or toot the horn. But these things are being added to the 2017 model.
The Sync 3 system on the Escape also lacks Equinox's 4G-based WiFi hotspot—so there isn't a Web connection in the car. You can use your phone to get online. If feeling intrepid, you can add a standalone hot spot powered by one of two USB charging ports in the center console, or cigarette lighter outlet just under the small gear shift.
For cheapskates, like me, that's a big advantage because Sync 3 doesn't require a monthly service or data plan. It's free. That's compared to GM's OnStar-based scheme, which can cost upwards of $50 a month.
Alexa's upcoming roadtrip
Ford has two not-so secret weapons planned for Escape's Round Two. First a Sync 3 upgrade is expected later this year that will incorporate Google's Android Auto into the system, which links smartphones running Android to a car's infotainment system. The free software upgrade will be accomplished over the air or via a USB thumb drive. Also, later in the year, the plan is to add compatibility with Apple's CarPlay beaming iPhone's apps to a car's display. But this will require a dealer visit.
Finally, Ford plans to set the pace by integrating with Amazon's Echo technology. Those with Amazon's voice-controlled Alexa companion at home will be able query the car's status, open a garage door or turn lights on at home—from the car.
All the details of the system haven't been worked out. But this type of integration, expected later in 2016, is miles ahead of competitors, opening new horizons of control based on an IoT philosophy: Your car becomes the hub for interacting— and controlling—an ever-widening world.
On the road
After a week of daily road trips with the Escape, I think it was appropriately named. The small SUV is comfortable, has a high seating position for an expansive viewpoint and is easy to maneuver around parked cars. For those with only two hands, its hatch opens if you wave your foot under the rear bumper. (You'll need the key fob nearby, though.)
The Escape's aluminum 2-liter four-cylinder EcoBoost engine delivers an exceptional 240 horsepower, but you'll need to use premium gas to get every pony. Overall, the car feels peppy, and with the six-speed automatic transmission and all-wheel drive, the Escape was a smooth operator, even when I was out in mud and snow. Still, it has an EPA fuel-economy rating of 22- and 30 miles per gallon, which translates to a range of over 450 miles at cruising speeds.
While you can get a basic front-wheel drive Escape for as little as $23,100, the car I test drove came with lots of options and upgrades, bringing its cost to $32,475. That does come, though, with a 3-year warranty as well as 5-years of roadside assistance, should something go wrong.
While Ford's Escape may not have all the tricks of other connected cars, the vehicle does the basics well. I expect Ford just might leap-frog the competition with the next version of Sync.
Escape Titanium 4WD
Engine: 2.0-liter four-cylinder EcoBoost/240 horsepower
EPA Fuel Economy (City/Highway): 22/30
Phone app: Includes car location, streaming phone audio, apps for things like ordering a pizza.
Price (base/as tested): $23,100/$32,475