The 2009 Ford Escape Hybrid compact SUV is the latest model of Ford's pioneering hybrid. In 2004, it was both the first hybrid SUV and the first hybrid built in the United States. It's capable, attractive, and in the last few years, a perennial bestseller for Ford. Buyers nervous about the durability of hybrids should be reassured by the fact that more than 1,500 Ford Escape Hybrids are in regular use as New York City taxicabs.
Ford has consistently upgraded its hybrid-electric powertrain over the years. For 2008, the hybrid Escape got an enlarged 2.5-liter four-cylinder engine with dual overhead cams, raising 153 horsepower. There is only a single engine/transmission option. Under the right circumstances, the Escape Hybrid will run in electric-only mode up to almost 40 mph.
The hybrid-electric system acts as an electronic continuously variable transmission (CVT), letting the engine run at its most efficient speed regardless of road speed. Acceleration is good, although putting the pedal to the floor quickly runs the engine up to a howl.
But it's fuel economy that really makes the 2009 Ford Escape Hybrid. The EPA rates it at 34 mpg city/31 mpg highway, and during a four-day road test with substantial highway mileage, we consistently averaged 30 mpg or very close.
Unlike the handful of other all-wheel-drive hybrid crossovers and SUVs, the Escape Hybrid AWD drives all four wheels mechanically. Other SUV hybrids use an electric motor to power the rear wheels. Under extreme circumstances, that motor could shut off to prevent overheating or damage--leaving the vehicle with only two driven wheels. We view this as a plus for the 2009 Ford Escape Hybrid.
That said, the Escape isn't a rock-climbing off-roader. It's fine for dirt and gravel roads, has a decent 8.5 inches of ground clearance, and holds the road nicely, thanks to a suspension that was completely retuned last year.
The 2009 Ford Escape Hybrid is a square, upright vehicle that's actually a bit larger than it looks. Its latest restyling takes it further into the tough-SUV mold, which some competitors have moved away from.
There's decent room for four adults inside the 2009 Ford Escape Hybrid, and every passenger sits high up, with good views out the windows. The front seats are better than the rear seat, which has a short bottom cushion and may be better for children than taller adults.
The 2008 restyling vastly improved the cabin décor and materials. Instruments are easy to read, with blue-green backlighting, though the high-gloss black plastic surfaces seem to attract dust like a magnet.
Our least favorite facet of the 2009 Ford Escape Hybrid is the wind noise, which is louder than expected and worse than in most other compact SUVs. This may reflect the age of the basic design, which launched a decade ago and has a more upright windshield than it might be today. The mirrors also generate a lot of noise at speed, though they are pleasantly large and provide excellent visibility. Our test Escape Hybrid also suffers an annoying, moaning howl right at the 2,000-rpm mark, though it's the only one we've driven with that problem.
The folding rear seat proves annoying. It requires all three headrests to be removed--but there's no place to stow them. Once the seat bottom is folded forward and the back flipped down, the load floor is flat and the Escape Hybrid offers 66.3 cubic feet of cargo space. Still, those headrests!
Our test vehicle comes with the optional LED interior lighting, which offers a choice of several different colors for floor, console, and cup-holder lighting. It's fun the first few times, but feels like a gimmick after that. Ford's Easy-Fuel capless gas filler system is a nice feature that eliminates the need for a separate gas cap.
Another sign of the Escape Hybrid's age is the lack of integration between the instrument cluster and the console screen. The cluster contains a mode gauge that shows when the battery charges and discharges, but all fuel efficiency data remains on the central console screen. The newer 2010 Ford Fusion Hybrid has both parts integrated and superb graphical displays in the cluster right in front of the driver.
Finally, the air conditioning compressor in the 2009 Escape Hybrid remains driven by the engine, which means any time the AC is switched on, the engine must start. Newer hybrids (including the 2010 Fusion Hybrid) use electric air conditioning that can run even with the engine off.
As a family vehicle, the 2009 Ford Escape Hybrid has to score well on safety, and it does. The Insurance Institute for Highway Safety (IIHS) deems it a Top Safety Pick, and the National Highway Traffic Safety Administration gives it five stars in its front and side impact tests. Dual-stage front airbags and side airbags are standard, as are anti-lock brakes, electronic stability control, and traction control.
Ford has won kudos for its Sync interface to infotainment systems, and justifiably so. Microsoft and Ford partnered to develop Sync, and it's remarkably versatile. Users can pair (most) Bluetooth mobile phones and connect MP3 players, then operate them entirely by voice command--improving safety significantly. Other Sync features and options include Sirius Travel Link, also voice controlled, which offers navigation, real-time traffic data, weather info, and even local fuel prices.
The Bottom Line:
The 2009 Ford Escape Hybrid is a viable and sturdy contender in the family crossover arena. Gas mileage is excellent for a compact SUV, and optional mechanical all-wheel drive sets it apart from softer competitors.