BY Kelly Taylor. May 20 04:00 am

JASPER, Alta. — The elk looked up as we approached, and then almost seemed to shrug his shoulders as he went back to eating the grass. Dawn has just broken over the Fairmont Jasper Park Lodge and we’re about to leave paradise and head back to Calgary, the airport and real life — when a gang of five of these large ruminants stopped us dead in our tracks. With not the slightest fear of humans, the elk casually munched away as tourists and a few automotive journalists snapped photos. At one point, an elk almost seemed to pose for a shot.

It was the exclamation mark on two days of driving through pure beauty. The Icefields Parkway, running from the Trans-Canada Highway west of Lake Louise to Jasper, may not rank as one of the world’s great drives, but it’s fairly high on the list and offers jaw-dropping vistas at nearly every turn.

And… oh, yeah, by the way, we’re here to drive the 2017 Ford Escape.

One of the dangers, or perhaps one of the advantages, of holding a media drive event here is the vehicle risks becoming secondary to the equation, lost in the fast-flowing creeks, towering granite peaks and postcard-perfect snow-covered evergreens.

Fortunately, the Escape needs no such subterfuge. Ford has taken an already good compact SUV and made it better. It’s quieter, smoother, seemingly more powerful, more fuel efficient and with a bunch of toys that work to enhance the driving experience. It is, Ford says, the company’s answer to what seems a foregone conclusion: compact SUVs are going to surpass compact cars in sales for the first time in history. If not this year or next, by the year after.

When I first saw the 2017 Escape late last year, my first thought was “They flew all of us all the way to L.A. to see this?” Minor seemed the changes. Now, however, having had the chance to drive one, the changes are far greater than meet the eye. Perhaps most significantly, and it may not have been apparent even to Ford back in November, the automatic engine stop and start system, which shuts off the engine at idle, may well be the benchmark by which all others are judged. While some systems are quite harsh, particularly on restart, the Escape’s is almost imperceptible. On shut-off, it waits until you’ve actually stopped, again, unlike some systems. Greg Watkins, marketing plans manager for Ford of Canada SUVs, said the goal was for auto stop-start to work better than Porsche, Audi, BMW and Mercedes-Benz systems. I’d have to drive them back-to-back to make sure, but my guess is Ford succeeded.

Other changes include increased use of acoustical glass, weather-stripping, insulation and aerodynamic sculpting to reduce noise. And even at speed, this Escape is exceptionally quiet.

The Escape, when properly equipped, also comes with SYNC 3, the latest version of Ford’s connectivity system, as well as Apple Carplay and Android. When connected to an Apple smartphone, the voice-command system can also act as a pass-through to Siri, Apple’s own voice-command personality. Siri, by the way, is smart enough to disable access to overly distracting features while you’re driving. Apple Carplay takes over the infotainment system, projecting Apple-esque displays on the touchscreen and using Apple’s mapping app to provide navigation. If you want, you can toggle between Carplay and Ford’s SYNC 3.

The Escape is taking Ford’s decision to return to actual buttons even further: while most Fords now bring heated seats out of the SYNC 3 menus to their own switches, the 2017 Escape adds the heated steering wheel to the list. Nice. The less fumbling you have to do with menus, the less distracted you’re going to be. Escape also brings the latest version of Ford’s active park assist, which now not only parks you parallel, it will also back you in to a perpendicular spot. It, too, has its own actual button.

On our trip back to Calgary, which retraced our drive from the day before, we were driving a Titanium model with the technology package. It’s as loaded as they come. One of the features in the tech package is active lane-keeping assist, which not only tells you you’re leaving the lane, it gently steers you back into it. It got fooled a few times by glare coming off the wet road, which made the lines difficult for the camera to see. When it did function, which was most of the time, it was very unobtrusive. Just a gentle, gradual turn of the wheel is all it did. And it left you alone once you were safely back in your lane. It’s in sharp contrast to some such systems, which can be so intrusive you actually start to feel pain in your forearms. (Acura, please check out Ford’s system. Just sayin’.)

The Escape’s handling is very good. It does lack the front-to-rear balance of vehicles that start as rear-drivers, but it holds the road, is predictable and steers precisely. Even though it uses electric assist for the steering, there’s still some feedback of what is happening at the front tires. The all-wheel driver also performs well. Once, during an unauthorized off-road excursion, the rear driver’s wheel lost traction: it spun for less than a full rotation before the system transferred its torque to the other three wheels, allowing the Escape to proceed up the embankment.

Coming soon to a Ford product near you will be Fordpass. This is a system that uses an on-board data transceiver to connect with wireless providers and give you access to your car through your smartphone or tablet. You can start the car remotely, make sure the doors are locked, locate the car if you’ve forgotten where you parked, check your fuel level and determine when regular service is required. Your car can email you a reminder it needs an oil change, for instance.

Watkins said once it rolls out, Fordpass will come with a wireless data plan free for the first five years. After five years, customers would have to negotiate a wireless plan for the device.

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