Ford won't introduce hybrid cars for a few years, but feels a hybrid sport utility is the best way to enter the hybrid market. That's because sport utes are usually less fuel-efficient than cars.
The Escape Hybrid goes on sale this fall in emissions-strict California and in several northeastern states with California-style emissions regulations—and reaches Midwest dealers late this year. It qualifies as an (take a deep breath) "Advanced Technology Partial Zero Emissions Vehicle (AT-PZEV) and produces 99.4 percent fewer emissions than a new car in the 1960s.
The Escape Hybrid will be joined by a Lexus hybrid sport utility this fall, with Toyota introducing a hybrid sport ute early next year. Toyota and Honda sell a few hybrid gas-electric cars, and Honda brings out another hybrid auto this fall.
The Escape Hybrid is the most technologically advanced vehicle Ford makes, which will cause it to be inviting to some people but will cause others to back off a bit.
But there's no reason to let the Escape Hybrid scare you—it drives virtually the same as the conventional gasoline-engine Escape. It has the same above-average ride, handling, braking and roominess of a regular Escape, along with the lively performance of the 200-horsepower Escape V6.
Good for Image
This hybrid won't be a high-volume vehicle, but is the new star of the 2005 Escape line, partly because Ford Motor Chairman Bill Ford is a self-declared conservationist. The Escape Hybrid also is good for the automaker's environmental image and shows off its engineering prowess.
However, nobody knew I was driving the Escape Hybrid unless they noticed the small "hybrid leaf-and-road" badges, which denote environmentally friendly features, and unique 5-spoke alloy wheels.
How It Works
The 70-kilowatt electric motor with its nickel-metal hydride battery pack (consider it one big battery) saves gasoline in the city by moving the Escape hybrid at speeds up to 25 mph. The motor works with a modified 2.3-liter gasoline engine, which kicks in when needed during acceleration. The gas engine turns on and off seamlessly and typically is used without electric assist during highway cruising.
A navigation and hybrid status display is available. With it, a 4-inch color, liquid-crystal display serves as the audio system interface, navigation system and a real-time "power path" offering visual indication of fuel consumption and the operating state of the hybrid system.
The battery part of the system makes the Escape Hybrid especially shine in slow stop-and-go traffic because the gasoline engine doesn't kick in under that driving condition. Rather, it turns on and off automatically, depending on driving conditions for the best fuel economy.
There is no need to charge the battery with a plug-in outlet because it recharges when the Escape Hybrid is driven. The electric motor-generator captures energy during braking, and the gas engine also delivers power to the battery when necessary.
Cold weather won't affect battery operation because it has a thermal management system to deal with temperatures from minus 40 degrees to 122 degrees Fahrenheit. An electric heater and forced-air cooling system help keep the battery "comfortable."
The electric motor produces 94 horsepower and the gasoline engine has 133 horsepower. But those two numbers can't be added to get total horsepower with the hybrid system partly because they don't work together all the time. Rather, they deliver a combined 155 horsepower.
But I found during stop-and-go driving in heavy city traffic and fast freeway driving that the Escape Hybrid has approximately the lively performance of an Escape with its 3.0-liter 200-horsepower gasoline V6. It has strong acceleration from the get-go. Gas-electric cars now on the market have modest acceleration above 65 mph, but the Ford hybrid is quick even during a 70-80 mph passing maneuver. It has a 1,000-pound tow rating, enough for a small boat or utility trailer.
High Sport Ute Fuel Economy
The government hasn't yet released fuel economy figures for the Escape Hybrid, but Ford says it delivers 35-40 mpg in city driving, where the electric motor keeps fuel economy ratings especially high, and 29-30 mpg on highways. The automaker said drivers of the hybrid generally can expect go travel up to 500 miles on a single tank of regular-grade gasoline.
The 2005 Escape V6 with a 4-speed automatic transmission gets an EPA-estimated 18 mpg in the city and 23 on the highway.
The Escape Hybrid has a smooth, continuously variable automatic transmission (CVT), which has a nearly infinite number of gear ratios and works well with the gasoline-electric drive system.
No Independent Repairs
But Ford says forget independent repair facilities if the Escape Hybrid breaks down. If it fails, the vehicle must be taken to one of Ford's 5,000 dealers, which are trained to work on it.
But Ford expects few—if any—breakdowns. Engineers for the Escape Hybrid put it through rigorous tests Ford uses for all its trucks and sport utilities.
Ford expects to sell about 20,000 Escape Hybrids during its first full year on the market, compared with 250,000 conventional Escapes.
Escape Hybrid-specific components are covered by a warranty of at least eight years or 100,000 miles, but there is no estimate on how much it would cost to replace them in eight years.
While more costly than conventional Escapes, buyers of the hybrid version get a one-time $1,500 federal tax deduction.
The Escape Hybrid comes with front-wheel drive for $26,380 or with all-wheel drive for $28,005. In contrast, the 2005 front-wheel-drive Escape V6 costs $22,955 and the all-wheel-drive version is $24,700.
However, a top-line Escape Limited V6 all-wheel-drive version is $26,365. (The base 4-cylinder, front-wheel-drive Escape costs $19,265.)
Drivers who spend lots of time in heavy stop-and-go traffic will benefit the most from the Escape Hybrid, although there's no reason why buyers of the regular Escape can't enjoy it as much as they would the conventional V6 version.