I do not know the best years but from talking to a few owners I know they seemd to be having good luck with 2008 models. So last year I found one with 51,000 on it and bought it. Like many of the Escapes the front sway bar links seldom last beyond 50,000 and this one was no exception. So I changed them ($50) and have had NO problems and now have 69,000 miles on it. It is a V-6 and gets 25.5 on strickly hiway driving. A very easy car around town as it turns sharply and parks easily.
Watch the first year or two of the new engine transmissions, '09-'10 iirc. Just be sure they shift ok when you test drive.
Find one with the side airbags. I'd tell you about how my kids got T-boned by a drunk in our '98 Exploder, but who wants to hear about that. They are ok BTW, but a fraction of a second later could have been trouble.
In an Escape, where your weight advantage is down a bit from an Exploder, side air bags are the way to go imo.
I looked at a lot of Escapes to replace that '98. They seem to hold the prices up. I found an '11 for $16000, and a low mile '04 and a 60k '05 for $10k. An '04 for $7900. People are proud of them.....
Most likely you will be looking at 2012 or older models so I would recommend a 2009-2011. This gives you the stronger engine, particularly with the V6, and the extra gears in the tranny for far better acceleration and improved mileage. Make sure the transmission shifts properly and hopefully has been serviced at least once. I have had both 2002 and 2009 models, with the 2009 presently at 161,000 miles, and they've been excellent vehicles. The 2002 lasted until 210,000 miles and was running great whereby it was sacrificed in an accident, but it protected my wife in a head on with a utility pole at 45 mph.
Depends on the level you buy, I always get the Premium. We rack up so many miles in a short amount of time it's worth it. A lot of people are confused as to what "powertrain" really is. Hyundai gets a lot of people that way.
Good luck finding one with that low mileage,thought there was one locally in the 6xK miles range, and even one less than 40k. I think they were 2006-2005 models. They wanted a lot for the low-low mileage truck. The 6xK mile truck was maybe $1k higher than similar vintage and over 100k.
That said, I would compare 'stuff'. My sister has a 2008, and I compared to my 2007 for interior features. In the cargo area, FoMoCo seemed to de-content everything. There was no storage area under the floor in the 08, which the 07 had. There were a few other things, but that stood out.
I would be careful about the 6 speed transmission first year models. Likely sorted out by now, but I'd still be hesitant given the leak stories and 'software upgrade' tales told on the web. Unless you get an extended warranty... The MPG would be better, and I hear the 2.3 seems to be a much better fit with the 6 speed, but I'd have to look real close at the condition on one to buy. Just my opines.