There was a time, not so long ago, when the only people interested in hybrids were those who wore Birkenstocks and voted for Ralph Nader. That's changed. Steep gas prices have piqued the interest of many who wouldn't typically opt for these nifty green machines. Manufacturers have responded by increasing the array of hybrid vehicles available to the public; recently, we've seen the introduction of hybrid versions of popular vehicles like the Honda Civic and Honda Accord. And now buyers who crave SUV go-anywhere versatility and hybrid frugality can have their cake and eat it, too -- Ford's new Escape Hybrid is the first-ever hybrid SUV, and promises to offer something for everyone.
The Escape is the third hybrid to spend time in our long-term fleet. The first of these fuel-sippers to roll into our garage was the Honda Insight. Eye-catching and quirky, the Insight achieved stellar mileage, averaging a very compelling 53 miles per gallon while in our custody. But its piousness came at a price. We found the two-seat hatchback's interior somewhat cramped. And though we deemed the Insight's powertrain (which gets 67 horsepower from the gas engine, and 6 extra horses from the electric motor) adequate when piloting one passenger, the situation changed when another body or cargo was added to the mix. With maximum payload clocking in at a scant 365 pounds, it didn't take much to tax the hatchback's performance.
Next up was the Toyota Prius, which still enjoys a spot in our long-term rotation. While the Prius' mileage isn't quite as dazzling as the Insight's (thus far, we've averaged 41 mpg), the four-door hatchback shines more brightly in a host of other areas. With more interior room, the Prius can transport four with ease; open up the rear hatch and it proves surprisingly adept at swallowing cargo. Power is adequate (the Prius achieves net horsepower of 110), with plenty of juice on hand to dart in and out of traffic. Overall, the Prius is a very practical choice for the car buyer with a yen for hybrid technology, and it's impressed many on our staff with its versatility.
Needless to say, we expect all this versatility and then some from our new Escape Hybrid. The 'ute has 27.6 cubic feet of cargo space behind its rear seats (compared to 16 cubes in the Prius) and a maximum capacity of nearly 70 cubic feet. It boasts net horsepower of 155. And with 8 inches of ground clearance -- versus the Prius' 4.9 -- it's capable of journeying to places the Toyota wouldn't dream of.
Like the Prius, the Escape Hybrid is a "strong" hybrid -- meaning that it's able to run solely on the strength of either its gas or electric motor. It's worth noting, though, that full electric propulsion is possible only at speeds at or below 25 mph. The 'ute is currently the most fuel-efficient SUV in the nation; the Escape Hybrid's sticker promises approximately a 50-percent overall fuel economy improvement over its conventional V6-powered sibling.
And unlike the Insight, its strong showing in this area doesn't come at the expense of performance; Ford boasts that the Escape Hybrid's 2.3-liter, four-cylinder engine and electric motor join forces to spur performance similar to the V6 Escape model. In reality, more than a second separates the two in 0-to-60-mph acceleration tests, but our early impressions in real-world situations suggest that the Hybrid does indeed behave much like the V6 version. Best of all, the 'ute accomplishes this while handling the environment with kid gloves. Its tailpipe emissions are low enough to qualify the vehicle for the stringent Advanced Technology Partial Zero Emissions Vehicle (AT-PZEV) standards; the Escape Hybrid produces as little as half the carbon dioxide of a conventional compact SUV.
Purchasing our Escape Hybrid was relatively hassle-free. Says Senior Consumer Advice Editor Philip Reed, "The vehicle was ordered from Ford by our manager of vehicle testing, Kelly Toepke. It was delivered to Santa Monica Ford where we dealt with the fleet manager. He called us to say that our Escape Hybrid actually came in a week early. It was the first Ford Escape Hybrid that they sold through that dealership. We brought him a check for $33,678.78 (we paid a sticker price of $30,825 for the car and the rest is fees), and he had the contracts waiting to be signed. It was a very speedy process that took less than 15 minutes. Before we knew it, we were driving one of the first Ford Escape Hybrids through the streets of Santa Monica."
The Escape Hybrid's looks proved an immediate hit with most of our staff. The 'ute is almost identical to the conventional Escape, with the primary differentiator being the "Hybrid" badges mounted to its sides and rear. This is good news for those who have always been fans of the sport-ute's clean lines. Commented Photo Editor Scott Jacobs, "The best thing this SUV has got going for it is its looks. It has a sporty, fun look."
New Vehicle Reviews Editor Jeff Bryan was also won over by the 'ute's appearance, and offered these comments: "I like that it's a lot more anonymous than most other hybrids. It's not as in-your-face, which is good for those who aren't looking to make a statement."
However, others wished that the 'ute's hybrid roots were more obvious. "Part of the fun of driving a hybrid rests in knowing that you're doing something good for the environment," opines one editor. "When I'm driving the Prius, other drivers wave and give me the thumbs-up, in support of my piloting a 'green machine.' Not so with the Escape. It looks like any other SUV, so it doesn't inspire the same enthusiasm."
Slide into its cabin, and the Escape Hybrid continues to impress. Many editors found its cabin attractive and well laid out; seats were comfy and controls were reasonably intuitive. We also approved of the relatively conventional way in which the 'ute's engine roars to life. Said one of our editors: "The Prius' keyless-start system is great, but it creates problems when the car is being valet parked, since many attendants don't know how to operate the system. It's also a hassle in car washes. Ford's system -- in which the engine is powered up by turning a key -- is less fun to use, but creates less headaches in the long run."
However, there were a couple of disappointments. Like the Prius and the Insight, the Escape Hybrid features a display screen that offers a digital rendering of the 'ute's hybrid technology in action. However, at only 4 inches in size, the screen in the Ford is significantly smaller. "Perhaps they kept it like it is so you wouldn't think it was any different [from the conventional Escape]," mused one of our editors. Regardless, we would have preferred a larger display.
We also had a gripe with regard to the vehicle's air conditioning. Remarks Road Test Editor Dan Kahn: "The air only blew cold when the dial was on the maximum setting. However, maintaining this setting necessitates the gas motor being turned on all the time. This defeats the purpose of the hybrid technology."
When it comes to driving performance, thus far, the Escape Hybrid has scored mixed comments from our crew. A couple of our editors found the 'ute's hybrid powertrain more than adequate in most situations. Says Content Editor Warren Clarke: "The Mazda Tribute is the conventional Escape's twin; we had a V6 Tribute in our long-term fleet a while back, and I logged some time behind the wheel. Based on this experience, I think Ford is right on the money in its claim that the Escape Hybrid is as peppy as a conventional V6 Escape/Tribute. In rush-hour traffic on the freeway, it never left me wanting when I needed a burst of power to thread an opening. And it held its own on steep gradients. I live on a hillside, and the 'ute never seemed to be struggling as it tackled the slopes."
Jeff had this to add: "When driving at low speeds or taking off from a stop, the gas engine didn't come on as quickly as the Prius' -- this made it easier to drive in stop-and-go traffic."
Others were lukewarm in their assessments. Says Scott: "I've driven several CVT cars, so I'm used to the strange whir and rev sounds. The power was a little on the weak side, but it seemed to do OK." Dan, who executed the Escape's track testing, had this to say: "The Escape Hybrid's electric battery is stashed in the rear of the vehicle. I found that the 'ute had a tendency to step out a bit in the rear while running through the slalom, which is not good; I suspect this had something to do with the extra weight in back due to the batteries. Also, it wasn't as smooth as other hybrids I've driven. There was a visible shudder when switching from the electric to gas motor. Don't get me wrong -- I liked it. I just thought it could be a bit more refined after all the hype."
Thus far, our time with the Escape Hybrid has revealed a vehicle with numerous strengths and a few shortcomings. Will it unseat the Prius as the hybrid we'd most like to have in our personal fleet? Stay tuned.
Current Odometer: 669
Best Fuel Economy: 28.2 mpg
Worst Fuel Economy: 21.4 mpg
Average Fuel Economy (over the life of the vehicle): 25.5 mpg
Body Repair Costs: None
Maintenance Costs: None
Ford likes to tout the Escape Hybrid as a "no compromises" SUV. Eager to investigate, our new vehicle reviews editor, Jeff Bryan, snagged the Escape to shuttle his vacationing parents all over Los Angeles and Palm Springs. Four adults, a fully loaded cargo area, and all types of games and road trip doodads made for quite a test of the first-ever hybrid SUV.
How did it perform? "Superbly," says Jeff. "Mountain passes were a breeze, ride comfort and noise levels were luxury carlike, and we even averaged about 26 mpg overall." Compare that to our former long-term Mazda Tribute V6 (twin to the Escape), which averaged only 18.1 during its two years with us.
"Our run from L.A. to Palm Springs in cool temps, two people and little cargo, cruise set at 70, netted a solid 30 mpg, according to the onboard display. Driving back to L.A., fully loaded with four people, luggage and with the A/C cranked, that average dipped to about 27. Unfortunately, crawling around in Southern California traffic (literally) pulled those figures down to the mid-20s."
Part of the problem with city driving is that the air conditioner only cools when the engine is running. Sitting through endless traffic signals, the family resorted to using the max-A/C setting, which made the engine run continuously. The Escape really needs an electronic A/C compressor like the Prius.
Jeff adds, "Watching the tachometer out on the freeway, we were surprised that during only moderate acceleration or simply maintaining speed on uphill grades, the engine easily revved past four grand while the charge/assist gauge hovered around zero (and the battery display showed a full charge). However, mashing the accelerator would peg the assist gauge, send the four-banger to redline and slingshot the little SUV like there was a V6 under the hood. Conversely, steady cruising on level ground would keep the engine barely above idle. Even at 70 mph, the tach would proudly hover around 1,500 rpm."
The road trippers also witnessed more curiosities when they hit a traffic jam on one of their freeway runs. In the stop-and-go driving, Jeff was able to keep the Escape in EV mode most of the time with little effort. If the engine came on, it would stay running until the truck was almost completely stopped. It seems the Escape isn't plagued with the maddening engine on-off syndrome of its hybrid peers. In the same conditions, the Prius would quickly start relying on the gas engine, firing it up at the slightest touch of the accelerator and annoyingly shut it down every time the pedal was released. Honda's hybrids, which won't even move with the engine off, are even more aggravating.
In spite of a spongy brake pedal feel, the Escape flat-out spanks the other hybrids when it comes to braking. The brakes are not as touchy as the Prius', and they don't have the horrifying regeneration cutout lurch of the Accord's binders. It doesn't matter if the Escape's motor/generator is doing the slowing, or the traditional friction brakes -- it always feels the same, and there are never any odd transitions or surges. More importantly, the Escape does a much better job of maintaining regeneration when braking over potholes and road imperfections. Sometimes even the slightest bump will activate the ABS in other hybrids, which reverts the brakes to friction-only. The driver must completely let off the brake pedal to "reset," or otherwise forgo the battery-charging potential of that particular stop. Again, not a factor in the Escape.
"Bottom line," says Jeff, "the Escape Hybrid is an awesome road trip vehicle." No compromises indeed.
Current Odometer: 3,134
Best Fuel Economy: 29.9 mpg
Worst Fuel Economy: 20.1 mpg
Average Fuel Economy (over the life of the vehicle): 24.9 mpg
Body Repair Costs: None
Maintenance Costs: None
Problems: Creaking noise coming from B-pillars, AM radio reception interference.
As the months have passed since the last update, our editors continue to appreciate the efficiency of the Ford Escape Hybrid and feel it lived up to its "no-compromises" reputation. In addition to its excellent gas mileage and luxurious ride comfort, a number of our test drivers commented on its stealthlike quiet operation. In fact, one of our editors noted that it was hard to get used to driving such a quiet vehicle. He was concerned at the possibility of cutting too close to pedestrians who could not hear him approaching as he drove through a shopping mall parking lot.
"For those who could not see the car coming toward them, they certainly couldn't hear it. I almost felt like I was creeping up behind them," he said. "We often don't realize how accustomed we've become to regular car sounds. Hybrids just don't fit that mold." This is not limited to the Escape, and all buyers interested in hybrids should be aware of such differences.
Fuel efficiency and quiet operation aside, not everyone had rave reviews for the Escape Hybrid. A number of our editors complained of a lack of overall power on the road. "The Escape's acceleration is by no means as powerful as your average gas-guzzling SUV," noted one of our editors.
As far as performance goes, the Escape Hybrid is inconsistent. When starting from zero, the car takes a long time to accelerate up to highway speeds. More noticeably, when our drivers put the car in reverse, especially when driving uphill, a lot of gas pedal pressure is required to encourage the car to move. "It almost felt as if I had to get out of the car to pull it up the hill myself," explained Alison Anziska, one of our editors whose driveway is a slight hill. "The car just didn't feel like it had the power to move effectively and even felt a bit precarious at times."
Despite this frustration, she conceded that "while the acceleration is slow, once you reach cruising speeds the ride is smooth and effortless."
When it came to everyday city driving, a number of our editors appreciated the small size of the vehicle, which made it easy to pull in and out of tight parking spaces. "Despite its relatively small exterior dimensions, there's no lack of space on the interior," Alison commented. Backseat passengers are quite comfortable as far as legroom is concerned and there's plenty of cargo room, too.
Problems arose for some with difficulties in closing the tailgate. "Oftentimes I would slam it shut only to return later and find that it was never properly closed in the first place. Whether I was out driving or parked in my driveway that gave me a feeling of a lack of safety." This was compounded by the fact that there were times when the tailgate was not fully secured yet the "door open" warning light failed to illuminate. Perhaps there could be some improvement in this system to ensure the safety of both passengers and packages.
Other gripes about the interior signaling system included the "low fuel" warning light. In addition to the standard fuel gauge on the dashboard, there is also an indicator of how many miles you have left before the next fill-up is required. "This should be a great feature for those of us who only pull into the local gas station at the moment of real necessity. But instead of showing the mileage count all the way down to zero, the gauge switches at some arbitrary point to read 'low fuel.'"
The problem is that the switch from a mileage readout to the "low fuel" warning indicator does not occur at the same point in each fill-up. One of our editors noticed the gauge reading 50 miles before it switched to the "low fuel" warning. After the next fill-up she observed that the count went all the way down to 30 miles before the warning message came on. For many, this inconsistency makes no difference -- a "low fuel" warning means a trip to the gas station regardless of how many miles are left in the tank. Others, relying on the fact that there could be another 50 solid miles in the tank could be persuaded to avoid a fill-up and get caught walking to the gas station for more fuel.
Overall, our editors consider the Escape Hybrid user-friendly and familiar. It's the perfect vehicle for those who consider themselves environmentally conscious and still want the SUV lifestyle. While it may frustrate drivers who are more concerned with performance details and agility, it definitely does the job for those who want a hybrid, without compromising on size, or ease of operation. The vehicle operates like any other on trips to the carwash and gas station, requiring no special set of instructions. Ultimately, the biggest distinction between the Ford Escape Hybrid and its gas-operating siblings is the small "Hybrid" emblem on the rear bumper. And yet in today's image-conscious world that little symbol may in fact mean everything.
Current Odometer: 4,248
Best Fuel Economy: 25.8 mpg
Worst Fuel Economy: 19.9 mpg
Average Fuel Economy: 22.3 mpg
Body Repair Costs: None
Maintenance Costs: None
The hot summer months have taken their toll on our Hybrid Escape's mileage. Brutal summer heat forced our editors to crank up the air conditioning almost every day and the resulting gas mileage was somewhat disappointing.
It didn't take us long to figure out that anything less than the maximum A/C setting is not effective. "It seems like it's all or nothing," noted one editor. We shouldn't have been surprised as our previous long-term Mazda Tribute (the Escape's twin) often suffered from the same problem. It's not really a big drawback from a functional standpoint, however, as most editors have figured out this quirk and leave it on full blast.
Given their disappointment with the A/C's cooling ability, our editors were most interested to study the effects of high air conditioning use on gas mileage in the Hybrid model. As we expected, fuel-efficiency took quite a hit from the heat as well. While fuel economy averaged 24.9 mpg when our editors first began driving this vehicle, recent fill-ups have averaged only 19 mpg, losing more than 5 mpg on average with the heavy A/C use.
Fuel-efficiency aside, the Escape has had no maintenance concerns over its first six months. We were surprised to find the brake fluid low while randomly checking it at a gas station, but after topping it off there have been no further issues with it.
We wouldn't consider it a maintenance issue, but we did get an unusual message from Ford informing us of some difficulties with the Escape's GPS navigation system. The note indicated that there is a potential issue with the playability of the navigation CDs. "In select cases," the company letter reads, "the system is not able to read the CD correctly and an error message will appear on your map screen." None of our editors had actually received this error message and so the brand-new set of navigation CDs Ford sent was just an extra bonus.
Overall, as the first SUV to make it on the hybrid market, the Ford Escape has done a pretty decent job. Whether car manufacturers will ever be able to make a hybrid SUV that can truly rival other hybrid models as far as fuel mileage and durability remains to be seen. But one thing's for sure, Ford surely has the ball rolling.
Current Odometer: 5,950 miles
Best Fuel Economy: 29.9 mpg
Worst Fuel Economy: 19.0 mpg
Average Fuel Economy (over the life of the vehicle): 23 mpg
Body Repair Costs: None
Maintenance Costs: None
We continue to get some nice attention on the road in our long-term 2005 Ford Escape Hybrid, most notably from other hybrid drivers. "Hybrid ownership is like a club," one staffer quipped. "Other drivers nod from their hybrids. It's like a shared pat on the back for taking care of the environment."
While our editors certainly enjoy the extra attention on the road, one specifically noted the difference between driving the Escape Hybrid and a similar non-hybrid model. While we've mentioned in past installments that the hybrid has a less powerful feel, that fact was made very apparent during one back-to-back comparison. "While driving the Escape Hybrid, I got used to stepping hard on the gas and brakes in order to get a response. That much effort is not necessary in other vehicles." But he conceded that it's worth the extra foot pedaling since the hybrid's demeanor is friendly, simple and light. "Parking this vehicle is especially easy. It's small enough to fit into those tight spots, and yet there's the cargo space and usability of any other compact SUV on the market."
Apart from some concerns over an unidentified sound the vehicle made for a brief period of time, there have been no mechanical issues. Furthermore, a number of our editors have commented that it's great to have a hybrid that operates exactly like any other car. Compared to Toyota's Prius, which has a unique key system, it is nice to bring the Escape Hybrid to the car wash or valet without any concern that the attendant would not know how to operate it. "It has all the perks of being a hybrid vehicle without any of the quirks," one staffer observed. "It's perfect for consumers who want that hybrid cachet, but still do not want to feel like they are driving an unconventional vehicle."
Some complaints arose with the Escape's handling of rainy conditions. One editor noted that she did not feel particularly confident driving the Escape Hybrid on rain-slicked roads, after some tire slip caught her attention. It wasn't the fault of the vehicle, exactly, but she did comment, "SUVs can give the impression that they are sturdy, take-on-anything vehicles when in fact they are going to be just as susceptible as everything else to the traction-killing effects of rain on oily roads."
Overall our staff believes that Ford made a smart decision by taking its popular model and creating a hybrid version rather than crafting a new and different vehicle. Consumers already know and trust the nameplate. Perhaps for now, the 2005 Ford Escape Hybrid is benefiting from the goodwill created by the gasoline-powered Escape models, but the prevalence of Escape Hybrids on the road seems to indicate that that is a good thing.
Current Odometer: 7,600
Best Overall Fuel Economy: 27 mpg
Worst Overall Fuel Economy: 18 mpg
Average Fuel Economy: 22.5 mpg
Body Repair Costs: None
Maintenance Costs: None