The last time I drove an Escape was when Ford's cute ute first became available in 2001. A buddy and I took the XLT 4WD version down to Baja on a road trip, and by the time we crossed back into the U.S., we were impressed with the way the Explorer's baby brother handled Mexico's pot-holed blacktop and washboard dirt roads with equal aplomb.
The only bummer of the Baja trip was when the fuel tank ran dry on the drive back up the peninsula, after we ignored rule number one when driving in Mexico's Outback-always top off the tank when passing a gas station. With the 2008 Escape Hybrid's rated fuel economy-34/30 mpg highway/city, compared to 18/24 for the model we drove-we probably would have made it to the next gas station about 20 miles up the road.
Six Years Later
The year 2001 doesn't seem that long ago, but from a tech perspective the 2008 Escape Hybrid is light years ahead of the first-generation version we drove south of the border six years ago. This was pre-Prius, and even pre-iPod, and the new Escape's hybrid drivetrain and even its auxiliary input jack show how much technology has changed since then.
The Hybrid's 155-horsepower 2.3-liter Atkinson-cycle four-cylinder engine is mated to an electric motor driven by a 330-volt nickel-metal hydride battery that's recharged by regenerative braking. This fuel-sipping setup produces slightly more power than the equivalent-size 153-horsepower four banger in the original base model. And although it's more sluggish than the 200-hp V6 in the XLT version I first drove down in Baja, the Escape Hybrid didn't have any problems merging into freeway traffic or even overtaking slowpokes on a two-lane highway once I put my foot into it.
Handling was about what you'd expect for a near 3,600 pound small SUV: lots of body roll around sharper corners, and not quite as nimble as some of its sportier European and Japanese competitors. Braking was adequate if a bit stiff. The standard Escape uses hydraulic friction braking, but the Hybrid's regenerative braking system is combined with friction braking. Because of this, the Escape is the only Ford SUV without traction and stability control as standard features.
Unlike other hybrids that initially run off the electric motor unless the battery is low or there's a significant load on the engine from, say, the climate control, the Escape's engine always fires up when the key is turned. Ford says this is based on comments from focus groups asking for more feedback and a feeling of control. Also, the Escape Hybrid's engine runs for longer periods than other hybrids I've driven, but Ford claims that it's more fuel-efficient to operate the engine at lower rpm when the throttle is closed rather than restarting it each time.
Subsequently, the Escape is not as quiet as other hybrids I've tested. However, most of my driving was done during a hot week in the summer and the engine doesn't shut down with the AC on since the compressor is driven off the engine. But the Escape Hybrid is quieter than any non-hybrid SUV in its class. The benefit of buying this vehicle is fuel economy, of course, which in my testing averaged around 30 mpg with equal amounts of city and highway driving.
The interior of the Hybrid Escape is far more teched-out than the first-generation version I took to Mexico. The test model came with the an optional DVD navigation system controlled by an exceptionally vivid 6.5-inch touch-screen monitor, which is bundled with an "Audiophile" sound system that includes a 6-disc CD changer and 320 watts powering seven speakers.
While it would be stretching it to describe the system as audiophile-quality, it does sound decent. But I didn't like that the position of the volume knob on the top left-hand corner of the head unit. Whenever I'd go to crank the volume, my hand inadvertently kept hitting the touch screen, and I'd invariably change the source. All the more reason for Ford to add steering-wheel-mounted audio controls, which would fit nicely on the right side of the wheel, opposite the cruise controls buttons.
With the nav system you also get an energy flow monitor that tracks power transfer between the engine, drive wheels and battery as well as overall fuel economy. This is augmented by an analog economy gauge in the instrument panel that shows whether power is flowing to or from the big battery in the back. The vehicle I tested also came with the Hybrid Premium Package, which adds a 110-volt power outlet in the center console.
While the new Escape Hybrid treads softly on the planet, it has an aggressive presence, thanks in part to a recent redesign that brings its appearance in line with Ford's Super Duty trucks-and obviously to better match macho competitors like the Nissan Xterra. In fact, I wouldn't hesitate to take the 2008 Escape Hybrid back to Baja, where tough trucks rule. And I may even be tempted to pass Pemex stations without topping off the tank.
Doug Newcomb has been writing about car electronics since 1988, as editor of Car Audio and Electronics, Car Stereo Review, Mobile Entertainment, Road & Track Road Gear and as a freelance writer. His new book, Car Audio for Dummies, is available from Wiley Publications. He lives in Hood River, Oregon.