After promising the debut of this vehicle for a good three years, Ford is finally bringing the highly anticipated Escape Hybrid to market. First shown as a concept at the 2001 Los Angeles Auto Show, the Escape Hybrid promises great fuel economy (in the range of 30 to 35 mpg) along with spirited V6-like performance. With the price of regular gasoline currently flirting (in L.A.) with $2.50 a gallon, the timing couldn't be better. Of course, there's also the benefit of reducing the consumption of a finite resource and reducing air pollution. But if Americans' appetite for gas-guzzling trucks and SUVs is any indication, it seems that those concerns aren't nearly as important as a serious hit to the wallet. In any event, we were eager to see if and how the Escape Hybrid lived up to the lofty goals Ford has for it. Could it really get nearly double the mileage of the V6 Escape without giving up zippy performance?
Looking at this Escape, you'd be hard-pressed to tell it apart from its "normal" siblings. A 2005 model, the Hybrid shares the same updates (such as a restyled front end and a console-mounted gearshift) that the whole Escape line received this spring. If you scrutinize the Hybrid, you may notice its unique wheels and "Hybrid" badges but other than that, you might as well be looking at any other Escape. And that's how Ford wants it -- why mess with the styling of the top-selling compact SUV?
The same philosophy holds true for the cabin, where the gauge cluster looks fairly standard until you notice the leftmost instrument that shows whether the battery pack is "assisting" or "charging." Within the tachometer face, there is a small, two-line message center display that shows average fuel economy, indicates estimated oil life and displays warnings such as "liftgate open." There is also the option of a navigation system, located in the center stack, whose screen can display graphics showing the energy flow to and from the various drivetrain components.
As with Toyota's Prius, the Escape Hybrid operates solely in electric mode at low speeds (up to around 25 mph or so) and low-demand (light throttle application) situations. This is why it gets higher mileage in the city, where it's quite possible to stay in electric mode most of the time. But even at low speeds, if you step into it a little more, the gas motor will fire up and kick in, relieving the electric motor and allowing the permanent battery pack to recharge. High-demand situations, such as accelerating hard or running up a hill, will have both motors running in tandem. Like the Prius, the Escape Hybrid's gas engine shuts off when the vehicle is stopped or coasting, automatically (and almost instantly) starting back up when needed.
The Hybrid's 2.3-liter inline four is essentially the same Duratec unit found in four-cylinder Escapes, except that it uses what's called the Atkinson cycle. For you gearheads among our readership, this means that the intake valve stays open longer than normal after the piston starts upward on its compression stroke, reducing "pumping losses" and sending some of the air-fuel mixture back into the intake tract, thus reducing fuel consumption. Optimizing fuel efficiency in this fashion comes at the expense of low-end torque. But with a torquey electric motor on hand to get the vehicle moving from a stop and assist when more power is needed, this doesn't present a problem.
The gas engine is rated at 133 horsepower, while the electric motor is rated at 94 horses. When combined, they make 155 hp, which may seem odd, as you probably think it should be 227. But there is a formula used to calculate total output and it isn't simply a matter of adding their output figures together. Although 155 ponies doesn't sound like much, the broad power band of the electric motor means that the net result is indeed V6-like performance. On our driving loop, which included running up the Hollywood Hills and cruising at 75 mph on the freeway, the Escape Hybrid felt as energetic as an Escape V6.
In place of the usual automatic transmission, a continuously variable transmission (CVT) does a fine job of delivering the power in a seamless fashion. It's also pretty quick to step down to a lower ratio (we'd say gear, except it doesn't have those) when you want some pickup. To maximize efficiency, the Escape Hybrid employs regenerative braking that in effect turns the electric motor into a generator upon deceleration. When the driver lifts off the gas pedal, the spinning motor sends energy back to the battery pack.
Unlike a full electric vehicle, the Escape Hybrid never has to be "plugged in" for a recharge. The battery pack is kept charged by the gas engine and the regenerative braking feature. The pack itself consists of a relatively compact unit under the cargo floor comprised of 250 D-sized nickel-metal-hydride batteries. Those worried about the longevity of the pack can take comfort in the 8-year/100,000-mile warranty that Ford provides for it.
In the spirit of this vehicle's mission, our day started with a contest to see who could get the best mileage on a brief six-mile loop around downtown Culver City, Calif. We paired up and set out, keeping in mind the tenets of maximizing fuel economy: going light and easy on the gas and keeping any sudden changes in direction or momentum to a minimum. My driving partner and I had an all-wheel-drive Escape Hybrid, which Ford estimates will pull 32 mpg in the city and 27 on the highway. Front-drivers earn higher estimates of 37 city and 30 highway.
For the record, this leadfoot, who drove as if an egg was beneath the gas pedal, got 35 mpg and was near the top of the list (for the AWD models). Alas, the celebration was short-lived, as my partner got 50 mpg on her go-round! Of course, she had almost all green lights, while my efforts were hindered by a string of reds... But all kidding aside, we were thoroughly impressed by the fact that we both soundly beat Ford's own city estimates for the AWD version. Our only complaint with the powertrain was a minor one -- the engine gets a little buzzy while maintaining speeds of 55 mph or above on long uphill stretches.
Beyond the cake-and-eat-it powertrain, the Escape Hybrid performs like any other Escape. That is to say, it delivers a pleasant driving experience with handling that is more sport sedan than SUV. The electric power steering (exclusive to the Hybrid) was natural in feel, so none of the enjoyment of taking an Escape through a twisty road was lost.
We have to admit, there were some jokes going around the office about when Ford was finally going to bring the Escape Hybrid to market. "They're waiting for gas prices to go up." "It's a Ford, look how long it took them to get the T-bird into showrooms." OK, so we had a few laughs at Ford's expense, but we're not laughing now and feel moved to congratulate the manufacturer. The company still managed to be the first to bring out a hybrid version of an SUV, a category that needs this fuel- and environment-saving technology a lot more than the small sedan segment does. The 2005 Escape Hybrid goes on sale later this summer and, considering how polished this first effort is, it's been well worth the wait.