Peppy acceleration, roomy and comfortable cabin, genuine 30-mpg SUV with front-drive, useful Sync system, the only non-luxury hybrid with all-wheel drive.
Pricey, mediocre panic braking performance, fussy folding process for rear seats.
What if you could snarf all the Big Macs and Frappuccinos your little heart desired without gaining a pound or sending your LDL cholesterol number into the stratosphere? Or what if you could drive a comfortable, peppy and sharp-looking SUV and get 30 mpg?
Well, good luck with the first one, but we can at least tell you that there's an SUV out there without the typical nasty side effects. You know, going broke at the pump, slurping up a finite resource, warming the planet, feeling embarrassed in front of Priuses.
Introduced a few years ago, the Ford Escape Hybrid sees a number of important upgrades — and one foolish downgrade — for 2009. Among the improvements are a more powerful engine, a revised suspension, the addition of stability control, the debut of Ford's "Sync" voice-control system and a capless fuel filler system. The foolish change involves the brakes — Ford saw fit to replace the rear discs with drums, a strange step backward that isn't something we'd suggest on a vehicle with a curb weight approaching 4,000 pounds.
The 2009 Ford Escape Hybrid is now available in Limited guise, a trim created by grouping together several of last year's optional packages in an effort to satisfy shoppers who'd rather not go without leather upholstery, a sunroof, heated seats or a CD changer. However, doing so comes at a price. Our Escape Hybrid Limited AWD tester hit the register at nearly $36 large, which is pretty big coin for a compact SUV. If you're willing to martyr yourself in the quest to be environmentally responsible by going without the Limited goodies, a base Escape Hybrid with front-wheel drive lists for $29,000. With the sizable federal tax credits available on all Escape Hybrids ($3,000 for the FWD and $2,200 for the AWD), the price tag drops even further.
Either way, the Escape Hybrid is not cheap. Similarly equipped non-hybrid compact SUVs such as the Honda CR-V, Nissan Rogue and Toyota RAV4 get fuel economy that's 5 or 6 mpg less, but they also cost thousands less. For that matter, so does the standard Escape. Then there's the Saturn Vue Green Line, a mild hybrid that still manages 28 mpg combined. The Saturn, however, can't propel itself solely on electric power like the Escape (making it much less efficient in the city) and it's not available in an AWD version.
While we like the Escape Hybrid, a thorough cost-benefit analysis is probably needed before you sign on the dotted line — doing that with the Big Mac wouldn't be such a bad idea either.
Since this is a hybrid, we'll answer your most burning question right now: Under our leaden feet we averaged 26 mpg against the EPA's combined estimate of 28 mpg (29 city/27 highway). Remember, we had the AWD version — the front-wheel-drive Escape Hybrid is rated more impressively at 32 mpg combined (34 city/31 highway). And according to our consumer reviews, some folks are averaging 30 mpg and better with the front-driver.
With this year's infusion of more power, the 2009 Ford Escape Hybrid moves out with respectable bravado. Our test of the Escape Hybrid's twin, the Mercury Mariner Hybrid, resulted in a 0-60 time of 10.1 seconds. But that was for the less powerful '08 model. Though we weren't able to run this Escape Hybrid through our regimen of track tests, we'd expect the 2009 to run that dash in the low-to-mid 9-second range. The hybrid's continuously variable transmission (CVT) is one of the better ones out there. Some of these CVTs tend to feel (and sound) like a slipping automatic transmission, as if all the power from the engine isn't going to the wheels. But this one feels fully connected and willingly steps down a few "ratios" to furnish strong passing power.
Sadly, braking hardware goes the other way. Inexplicably, this year Ford swapped out the Escape Hybrid's rear discs for drums. Our 60-0-mph braking test of a 2008 Mercury Mariner resulted in a 138-foot distance, which is about 10 feet longer than we'd like. And that was with the rear discs, so we imagine with drums back there it's only going to be longer. If we were calling the shots at Ford, we would've fitted this ute with beefy discs all around.
In everyday driving, the brakes actually feel solid. Being a hybrid, this Escape's braking action is regenerative — applying the brakes also sends energy that would normally be lost as heat back into the battery pack. But despite tweaks this year to improve brake feel, they still feel a little touchy until you've acclimated, which in fairness doesn't take long.
Revisions to the suspension system for 2009 provide a smoother ride over the ruts and bumps. Previous Escapes were lauded for their handling but derided for their ride. Now potholes don't jolt the cabin as they once did, and handling is respectable, although not exactly sporty. Pushed harder in the corners, the hybrid version can feel a little top-heavy, a side effect of its greater mass courtesy of the heavy battery pack located just under the cargo area. The electric power-assisted steering is precise and has decent weighting — no '80s video arcade driving game sensation here — though its communication from the road to the driver's hands is rather muted.
The Escape's roomy cabin provides plenty of room for four adults. The front seats are firm enough and supportive, while the rear seats are a mixed bag. Although legroom and headroom back there are ample, the seats don't recline or slide fore and aft, as with some rivals such as the CR-V and RAV4. The steering wheel tilts but doesn't telescope, though most staffers were still able to find a comfortable driving position.
With the Limited trim you get heated front seats, and they're quick to warm your buns on a cold morning's commute. Large cupholders and a massive center console compartment provide plenty of space for your cuppa joe, CD wallet and snacks for a long trip.
Ford's Sync system is a great feature that's fairly simple to use. Sync allows control of your cell phone, the audio system and the navigation system through voice commands. A few times we had to repeat the name of a few people we were calling, but overall the system works great, with clear transmission both ways. Techies will delight in the standard 110-volt power outlet (which can power laptops or perhaps a toaster) and a pair of audio input jacks (USB and 3.5mm) let you hook up your portable tunes, such as an iPod or other MP3 player.
The optional navigation system is intuitive as well — although flipping through the manual is never a bad idea. Should you spring for the nav, you'll also get the Sirius Travel Link feature that can show you things like weather, gas prices in the vicinity and even sports scores and movie times. A nice touch is that the display screen can be split up to display the map-guide, audio status and fuel economy at the same time. The nav system option also includes a hybrid display that'll show you the flow of the power (e.g. engine off and running on electric motors) and detailed fuel economy. The dual-zone automatic climate control is likewise user-friendly — three big knobs control temperature and fan speed with smaller buttons to select airflow and defrost modes.
It's no surprise the 2009 Escape Hybrid passes the child seat, golf club and large luggage case tests with flying colors, an obvious benefit of an SUV's tallish, boxy, efficient body style. With the rear seats in use, there are about 28 cubic feet available. Folding the split rear seats down is a hassle, though, as it's a three-step affair: 1) remove headrests; 2) flip bottom cushion up; 3) flip seatbacks down. Once done, you'll have 66 cubes at your disposal, more than the Saturn Vue Green Line but less than a CR-V or RAV4.
Design/Fit and Finish
Masculine, angular lines define the Escape's body style. Although we like the clean sides, we'd still like to see a strip of body molding to ward off the inevitable, carelessly opened doors of other vehicles. Inside, a mix of colors and materials makes for an interesting and upscale ambience. Soft-touch material adorns the door panels and piano black and chrome accents spice things up. Overall quality is a huge improvement over the previous industrial Escape interiors; however, we can't say the cabin befits its big-ticket price tag.
Who should consider this vehicle
So does it make sense to go with the pricey 2009 Ford Escape Hybrid? Do the math and the answer is probably not. But for many, it's about more than just cold monetary analysis. For them, doing right by the planet and their gas cards is almost priceless.