With four SUVs — each with a unique personality and purpose — deciding which Ford off-roader is right for you can be a pretty difficult task when done just in the showroom. At the Ford SUV Experience, the decision was made easier when each was put in its element.

Ford Philippines organized a pretty major sampler of their off-road vehicles in Pampanga. We tested four different cars over two days in realistic driving conditions. The trip was meant to simulate the exploits of common consumers — the target markets and eventual buyers of certain vehicles. From open highways and narrow provincial roads to rocky rivers of lahar and tedious traffic jams, the weekend was practical and true to life for all intents and purposes.

Morning introductions

The idea was to make Midori Hotel and Casino in Clark, Angeles our base. We’d then hop into each of the four test units, drive in a convoy along designated routes, and do some activities that Ford PH had in store for us. The first morning, we met for a safety briefing and listened to the presentations of a couple of guys from Ford Asia Pacific.

Nick Eterovic, the Interior Design Strategy Manager of Ford Asia Pacific, stressed Ford’s philosophy in evoking capability, versatility, and modernity via aesthetic cues. Communicating inherent robustness is key. He talked about how things such as bold horizontal lines and strategic plating give the image of ruggedness. A lot of thought and care is put into the design of Ford’s vehicles; it isn’t all about looks but also function. Space is strategically expanded for ease in loading cargo and family-oriented tasks such as putting kids into car seats. Lines direct airflow around Ford’s vehicles for optimal aerodynamics. They want their cars to perform well and look good in the process — as Eterovic put it, “tough but not rough.”

Nick Allen was up next. As the Attribute Lead Engineer for Off-Road Capability for Ford Asia Pacific, he’s tasked with assuring that the requirements for off-road vehicle classification are met. Ford’s SUVs were meant to attack rough terrain, while maintaining a car-like feel with creature comforts that keep the drive rewarding. Approach, departure, and rampover angles were planned with purpose, as well as damage-avoiding placement of intakes and sensors. When it comes to river crossings and flash floods, water wading capability was considered; for example, the Ford Everest can wade through water up to 800mm while the EcoSport can up to 550mm. Mr. Allen also helped test and develop Ford’s intelligent off-roading electronic mode suite — the Terrain Management System (TMS).

Ford EcoSport

First order of the day was with the EcoSport

The first car my partner and I got to drive was the Ford EcoSport. The itinerary had us take the Mega Dike Access Road to a lantern making shop in San Fernando. That was a cute detour highlighting the festive city’s more famous, seasonal industry. We then made our own halo-halo at Susie’s Cuisine, and did a fun souvenir shopping challenge at Nepo Mart that entailed loading coconut crates into the EcoSport’s roomy back as well as some haggling.

The subcompact EcoSport is a looker with its subtly curved fenders and matte cladding, to me at least. While others may find its styling awkward I think that the outside is quite appealing — especially in the youth-oriented color choices it comes in. The interiors were all right. To me, the center console seemed a bit collegiate (a word I’ve been using more and more the older I get)… But then again the funky button layout was made to appeal to younger folks.

The front-wheel-drive EcoSport manages to still deliver a little punch and handling, although not that much even with its 1.5L four-banger making 142 Nm of torque and almost 110 PS. Perhaps it was the control of the convoy or the populated roads, but the pull of its acceleration made me go, “well that felt smooth” instead of “well that was fun”. Then again, who’s to complain with the small engine, right? It felt economical because it is, but maybe try the Fiesta first. 200mm of ground clearance will help the EcoSport in unpaved territory, but it’s not going to make a rutty wilderness trail easy or pleasant. You’re better off sticking to well-maintained, flat, and tame paths to the resort or to the farm. Having said that, there’s still a lot of fun to be had exploring in a car that’s so small and relatively good-looking. It’ll look great in old travel photos when you reminisce about the carefree days.

Ford Everest

Trekking with the Ford Everest

Right after, it was time to bring the Ford Everest Titanium out of town and off-roading. I’d never driven on soft, sandy lahar before. Luckily, having Mr. Allen riding shotgun (acting as an instructor of sorts) left no room for anxiety. Who better to show me the ropes as the head engineer, right? Turning the Everest’s TMS dial on the fly between “Sand” mode and “Rock” mode was a cinch (other modes are “Normal” and “Snow/Gravel/Grass”). We were also tipped off when to electronically lock the rear differential and when to switch to low-range four-wheel-drive. You can take most dirt roads with ease in the Everest, but I still recognize choosing the right combination of settings for more challenging terrain an art form I have yet to adequately grasp.

The Everest blasts through streams with no problems

That off-roading part was the highlight of the trip. Carrying speed through sandy rivers, making huge waves, and crawling over rocks was as fun as it sounds. We were driving between jagged moss-covered rock formations and picturesquely tall grass — kicking up volcanic ash and listening to music in protected comfort. Enjoying the scenery and the air conditioning, I listened intently to Mr. Allen recount his experiences in the Australian desert. His team spends a week at a time researching, developing, and testing cars out in the middle of nowhere. He’d sleep under the Milky Way at night, after long days putting vehicles through the wringer — often trying to break them. Roughing it up is part of the job after all, and it’s what’s required for him to be able to go back and tell Ford what the cars need and where.

Ford SUVs like the Ranger-based Everest have been through this development process and hearing about that creates trust, although experience is all the proof one needs. This wasn’t the first time I’d been in an Everest doing some remarkable things that the average customer probably didn’t realize was that easy. I’ve become a big fan. The Everest’s got great connectivity, feels right, and its intelligent four-wheel-drive control system is ace. All around, it's an exemplary and intuitive SUV package. I feel kind of bad for the markets where the Ranger and Everest aren’t available. Then again, you never know what the future has in store. The US can cross their fingers at the rumors.

Ford Explorer

The Explorer did well despite sedan underpinnings

After some lovely overnight recuperation at Midori, it was time for more driving the next day. We got into the Explorer Sport with its 3.5 V6 EcoBoost engine and hit the highway. Now, that was rolling in style. As soon as I sat in the car I let out a satisfied sigh. Its first impression was that of pride and luxury with all the sense and without any silliness. It has the passing power, technology, terrain settings, and premium amenities with road presence to boot. My partner even gave the smart cruise control a go, and the Explorer managed to appropriately slow down and speed up based on the behavior of the car in front. I’m the type that still likes to maintain full control while driving, but I do give props to that safety feature.

We took the Explorer on some rocky dirt trails around Green Canyon Resort and, just as expected, it was a piece of cake… A big, beefy, twin-turbocharged cake that makes 370 PS and 470 Nm of torque. In a convoy of Explorers, I made some fed-y jokes and the other journalists cracked some about VIPs and politicians. These seriously handsome SUVs just make one feel powerful — like you’ve done good for yourself. If you can shell out for an Explorer Sport, you’ll probably be able to afford the fuel consumption too. We found out firsthand that it’s rather thirsty whichever way you drive it.

Ford Escape

The drive was capped off with the Escape

Our Ford SUV Experience ended with the Ford Escape Titanium, which was the perfect conclusion. We took it to the Lakeshore through pretty horrendous traffic that eventually gave way to some clear back roads. After slowly inching through those painfully “realistic” bits in town, the leisurely respite by the man-made lake was welcome. Back to downsizing, this compact crossover was a joy. To me, personally, it was the Goldilocks Zone. My daily is a sedan, so driving the Escape just felt right. It was more mature than the EcoSport and more maneuverable than the bigger SUVs. The fact that the 241 PS and 366 Nm of torque its turbocharged 2.0L makes was being delivered to all four wheels at every given moment just inspired confidence.

I’ve always considered it far from sexy, but the drive itself brought such ease and joy that what the car looked like on the outside didn’t even matter anymore. The ride was smooth and it wasn’t sluggish. The interiors were neither distracting nor gimmicky. This is the car for the young professional who isn’t getting any younger — who might be starting a family but also places value on good old adventure time. I can see the Escape taking forest roads to trailheads, braving a bit of snow and ice, or even with a motorcycle or camper trailer in tow. Although off-roading in the Everest was the best part of the trip, piloting the Escape gave me the best driver-car connection; I just wished it had a cooler appearance. It really is something you could choose to upgrade from if you were able, but you might never even need to because you might never feel like growing out of it.

Bringing Ford's SUV lineup on and off road

It was a great weekend hanging out with fellow journalists and getting to know the Ford Asia Pacific guys on the side. The two Nicks were awesome guys and true enthusiasts. We can lament the waning interest in power-cruising muscle sedans while praising the industry’s direction towards fuel efficiency, innovation, and practicality. The market’s demands shape the industry, and Ford’s SUV lineup is predicted to make up 40% of its sales by 2020. Utility vehicles and crossovers dominate the present desire and still will in the foreseeable future. With half a century of SUV manufacturing experience, Ford’s determined to stay ahead of the curve.