That said, the technology in the Escape Hybrid, the first sport utility vehicle to combine a gasoline engine with an electric motor, definitely delivers noteworthy fuel economy. It's higher than that of the conventional four-cylinder Escape but delivers acceleration at least as great as the Escape V6. The Hybrid also beats the previous SUV record, held by the Toyota RAV4 manual with front-wheel drive (24/30 mpg). Escape fuel-economy figures are compared below.
|EPA-Estimated Fuel Economy|
|Conventional and hybrid models compared|
|Ford Escape 4-cylinder|
|Ford Escape 4-cylinder|
|Ford Escape V6||20/25||18/22|
|Ford Escape Hybrid||36/31||33/29|
The Hybrid's lopsided ratings are not an error. Higher city fuel economy is normal in a full hybrid (technically a series-parallel hybrid), the type that can propel the vehicle using the electric motor alone, the gas engine alone or some combination of the two. I'll try not to get too technical, but I'll be using the term "regenerative braking" many times because it's the core of the hybrid system and it also affects the driving experience. Regenerative braking is the means by which all hybrids charge their high-voltage battery packs. When the vehicle coasts or brakes, the same motor that's used to propel the car serves as a generator driven by the car's momentum to recharge the battery pack. (Like all the others on the market, this hybrid never needs to be plugged in.)
City mileage is higher because this type of low-speed, stop-and-go driving maximizes the capture and reuse of electricity. At highway speeds, braking is infrequent and the gas engine keeps running to push the Escape Hybrid through the air, the source of greatest resistance at higher speeds.
Because it comes at a premium of roughly $3,000 over the cost of an Escape XLT, one wonders how long it would take the Hybrid to break even in fuel savings. Based on EPA estimates of annual fuel costs (from 55 percent city driving, 45 percent highway driving and 15,000 annual miles), it would take the front-drive Hybrid 7.7 years and the all-wheel-drive version 5.6 years. However, fortunately for buyers, Congress extended through 2004 and 2005 the federal Clean-Burning Fuel Deduction of up to $2,000 for hybrids. (Note that this is a deduction, not a credit or rebate.) A full $2,000 deduction makes a huge difference, bringing the break-even point down to 2.8 years and 1.9 years for front- and all-wheel drive, respectively. These figures are based on an average gas price of $1.80 per gallon. Even if gasoline remains at around $2 per gallon, the terms change only a little, to 2.6 and 1.5 years.
The Escape Hybrid obviously is based on the Ford Escape compact SUV, and it comes in just one trim level. Compare the features and you find it's closest to the regular Escape's middle, XLT trim level. Currently on sale in the coastal states, the Escape Hybrid will next hit metropolitan areas in other parts of the country. Dealers have been taking orders since April 2004, and waiting lists have already begun. Ford says all states will begin to receive the vehicles in January 2005.
My test vehicle was equipped with front-wheel drive. It included these options: the Appearance Package, which includes painted fascias and side moldings; a premium stereo with a GPS-based navigation system and energy display; the Safety Package with side-impact and side curtain-type airbags; the Leather Comfort Group with leather seats and steering wheel; a 110-volt outlet; a retractable cargo cover; and rear floormats. The as-tested price was $30,725 including the $590 destination charge.
Exterior & Styling
When it made its debut as a 2001 model, the Ford Escape was the first in its class to look like a larger SUV rather than a toy. Its styling has evolved and improved since then, adding in 2003 glossy and body-colored bumpers, cladding and door handles to some trim levels. In 2005 the bumpers and fascias are redesigned and the headlights take on a much more interesting, multielement appearance. The Hybrid incorporates all these features, too. It includes 16-inch alloy wheels and front fog lights as standard equipment. With the exception of a couple Hybrid badges, nothing distinguishes it from the non-hybrid Escape except a vertical slit on the left rear quarter window, a vent for the high-voltage battery.
Going & Stopping
To the casual driver, piloting the Hybrid might seem no different than driving a conventional Escape, and that's certainly a good thing. More astute drivers notice some differences in the acceleration and braking. For the record, the drivetrain is similar to the one Toyota uses in its hybrids. Ford emphasizes that it licensed some of the technology, not the components, mainly to avoid patent infringement, and that it has applied for more than 100 patents of its own in the Escape's drivetrain. Still, the Escape Hybrid has characteristics similar to Toyota's first-generation Prius hybrid.
The Escape's transmission is automatic, but it's not conventional. It's not a continuously variable transmission in the usual sense, but it has the same properties: a stepless operation with no feeling of shifting up through separate gears. I used to consider this operation less linear than a normal automatic until someone argued that it's technically more linear just different. Hmmm. At any rate, accelerating feels unusual, but it's by no means unresponsive. In fact, the electric motor, which is responsible for much of the torque at low speeds, gives the Hybrid a more commanding launch than the earlier Escape V6 (Ford claims to have upgraded the 2005 model's powertrain, but I haven't tested it yet). It's easier to spin the drive wheels in this Escape than in the gas-only versions. To give power ratings is pointless because the industry has not yet devised a standard for combined internal combustion/electric drivetrains, and the individual components' ratings don't translate to true performance.
The engine stops and starts automatically and almost imperceptibly. It turns off when you stop, when you coast and sometimes as you brake, even lightly. If you really tromp on the accelerator every time you take off, the engine always turns on to provide extra power. One must accelerate gradually to remain in the eerily quiet electric-only mode. At about 25 mph, the engine fires up no matter how quickly you accelerate. The only standard display on the instrument panel is a charge/assist gauge of the type Honda uses in its hybrids. It simply shows whether the electric motor is assisting in acceleration, is neutral or is recharging the high-voltage battery pack. The optional navigation system built into a premium stereo displays more details on an incorporated LCD screen. It shows which way power is flowing among icons of the engine, electric motor, battery and drive wheels. It's similar to the display in Toyota's Prius, but at 3.8 inches, it's way too small.
There are a few conditions in which the engine won't turn off: When it isn't at full operating temperature (the first few minutes of operation), when the ventilation is on the MAX A/C setting and if the engine or cabin gets too cool in cold exterior temperatures. For the latter reason, hybrids tend to get lower fuel economy in cold weather.
The Hybrid should have a range of almost 500 miles on a tank of regular unleaded gasoline (87 octane). It's also one of the cleanest vehicles sold, with an EPA Green Vehicle Guide rating of 9 (of a possible 10, the best) for models sold nationally and 10 for those sold in California and the more restrictive northeastern states. For comparison, the gasoline-only Escapes score 8 in this emissions test.
Braking is perhaps where the Escape Hybrid deviates most from the norm. It succeeds in stopping the vehicle, with standard ABS and brake assist, but the operation and feel are different. As explained above, the Hybrid's gasoline engine can charge the battery by turning the motor (as generator). But the recapture of energy that has been expended in acceleration comes when the driver coasts or brakes. The harder the braking, the more electricity flows from the motor/generator to the battery pack, produced as the car's momentum turns the wheels. The brake pedal basically tells the motor/generator to provide greater mechanical resistance to the front wheels. In normal driving, the brake pads might not even touch the brake discs, which is claimed to prolong their life.
(To test this claim, I poked my finger through the spokes and touched the discs after 30 minutes of stop-and-go driving. The front ones were cold to slightly warm. The rear discs were searing hot, though, which makes sense because the rear wheels don't perform regenerative braking. Also, the heavy battery pack, located at the rear under the cargo floor, probably makes the rear brakes work harder than they otherwise would.)
The practical result of all of this is that the braking isn't as linear as we've come to expect from traditional, hydraulic brakes. The regenerative braking and the hand-off between this and the regular friction braking aren't perfectly smooth. While Toyota has refined this in the current, second-generation Prius, the Escape Hybrid's brakes feel more like those in the first-generation car. Most significant, the pedal offers little feedback. A traditional brake pedal gets progressively firmer the harder you step on it, and this enhances the driver's feel for how quickly the car is slowing. (You don't realize how great a part this plays in moderating your braking rate until it's gone and you're relying completely on vision.) One can adjust to this quirk, but for all its technology, the Hybrid's pedal feel falls short of that in even the most modest conventional car.
Prospective buyers are understandably concerned about unexpected problems and expenses related to the new hybrid technology. To address this, Ford includes an eight-year, 100,000-mile warranty on the hybrid components. Folks seem most apprehensive about the high-voltage battery pack, which would cost thousands of dollars to replace at today's prices. All of these issues remain a mystery for the Escape Hybrid. The best we can do is look to the Honda and Toyota hybrids, which have been remarkably trouble-free overall. Further, nickel-metal-hydride batteries have displayed exceptional longevity regardless of age and use. Toyota says it has never replaced a battery pack in its Prius models due to wear, only the rare manufacturing defect.
Ride & Handling
The Hybrid's ride quality remains comfortable, but its handling deviates some from the gasoline-only Escape models. From the beginning, the Escape impressed me with its grounded, stable feel especially back when most SUVs still felt precariously top-heavy in turns. The Hybrid exhibits more body roll than the gasoline models, and it definitely feels like the center of gravity is higher. I wouldn't say it feels unstable, but the difference is real. On the positive side, the Hybrid seems to have a more balanced weight distribution, front to rear, than the conventional models, which carry about 60 percent of their weight over the front wheels, giving them some understeer. Ford confirms that the Escape Hybrid's front/rear weight distribution is 57.1/42.9 percent with front-wheel drive and 56.8/43.2 percent with all-wheel drive.
All of the differences above may result from the Hybrid's high-voltage battery pack, which sits directly under the cargo floor at the back of the truck. At 3,627 pounds, the Hybrid weighs 323 pounds more than a comparably equipped Escape V6. The battery accounts for about 200 pounds of it, and because it sits mostly behind the rear wheels, it changes the truck's dynamics profoundly. Distributing the weight more evenly between the front and rear wheels can improve roadholding, though the extra weight overall and other factors play a part, too.
Because a conventional power-steering pump is driven by the engine, using one in the Hybrid would require the engine to run full time. Like other hybrids, this one uses electric power assist. If you didn't know it, you probably wouldn't notice. It works better and feels more natural than the same technology does in some non-hybrid vehicles.
My test vehicle was equipped with Continental Contitrac EcoPlus all-season tires rated P235/70R16 (see tire codes to decipher the specs). Owners of the first-generation Prius complained that their original tires selected by Toyota for their contribution to fuel economy wore out prematurely. This shouldn't be a problem with the Escape Hybrid's tires, which have a treadwear rating of 520 (which means they should last four times longer than tires rated 120; few tires rate 500 or higher).
Matching the regular Escape's interior, the Hybrid is generally very well thought out and accommodating, in the front and rear seats. Its height makes for simple entry and exit. Cloth seats are standard, and the optional Leather Comfort Group wraps the seats and steering wheel in hide. Both front seats feature power adjustment, including cushion height for the driver, which accommodates a wide range of driver heights. I'd like to see Ford add a telescoping adjustment to the standard tilt steering wheel because it helps drivers of all sizes to fit better and distance themselves properly from the airbag. The center storage console provides both a nice, wide armrest and a load of covered storage. You probably could fit 40 CDs in there.
The backseat's 60/40-split backrests adjust to several angles at the tug of a canvas strap along either side. For a rear seat, the center position is more comfortable than most.
For 2005, Ford addressed two shortcomings in all Escape models: cabin noise and materials quality. The earlier models were plagued with road noise, wind noise and engine noise. (Hey, at least they were consistent.) Ford's efforts have paid off on the noise front, at least in the area of road noise. The engine noise is still noticeable in the Hybrid, but perhaps that's because of the contrast between electric-only and engine-powered operation.
The Hybrid also shares the model line's interior, the materials quality of which is improved, with better feel and, especially, lower-gloss plastics.
The Escape Hybrid's standard airbag complement includes a dual-stage frontal airbag for the driver and a single-stage airbag with Occupant Classification Sensor for the front passenger. Occupant classification automatically turns the airbag on or off depending on the occupant's size. (This system will be required in all vehicles in 2006.)
The optional Safety Package includes side-impact airbags that deploy from the front-seat backrests to protect their occupants' torsos in a side impact, as well as side curtain-type airbags that deploy downward along the front and rear side windows to protect all occupants' heads. These deploy both in a side impact and in the event that the truck begins to roll over. This "Safety Canopy" is meant to cushion the occupants and prevent their ejection even in a multiple rollover.
Though features are noteworthy, crash tests give us the best reading of how well a vehicle truly protects its occupants. Unfortunately, the Escape has a disappointing history but that has changed somewhat. In Insurance Institute for Highway Safety frontal crash tests, the 2004 model was in the middle of the Small SUV class with an overall rating of Marginal. Ford reinforced the Escape's structure for 2005, and it now earns an Acceptable rating improved, but at the bottom of the class of vehicles tested as of the start of the model year.
Both for 2004 and 2005, Escapes without the side-impact airbags scored Poor in the IIHS side crash; with the airbags it scored Good, so I definitely recommend the Safety Package.
Caveat: Though the regular Escape suggests how the Escape Hybrid would fare in a crash, we can't make assumptions. The Hybrid is significantly heavier and has different machinery and the added challenges of high voltage. I'd like to see it tested, but limited-production vehicles seldom are crash tested. To date, the IIHS has not tested any hybrid.
There are three-point (lap-and-shoulder) seat belts and adjustable head restraints for all five seats. The passenger seats have switchable-locking retractors for installing old-school child-safety seats. For easier installation, as required, the Hybrid has two LATCH positions and three top-tether anchors. Unfortunately, the top-tether anchors are located on the ceiling directly in front of the liftgate, which may interfere with the cargo area.
Lists of all the standard and optional features are available by clicking on the categories to the left. I'll give you some perspective on a few of the notable options not already mentioned:
For the list price of $110, you can option a 110-volt AC outlet right in front of the gear selector next to the 12-volt cigarette-lighter outlet. This can be handy, but understand that household voltage doesn't guarantee household current. This outlet is rated at 150 watts. That means it's good for running light electronics such as a laptop computer or video game. You won't be running a refrigerator, hair dryer or power tools off this outlet.
Another option, the aforementioned navigation/premium stereo system, has its pros and cons. The pros are the fact that it gives you a stereo upgrade including a six-CD changer. The changer goes under the passenger seat, far from the ideal location, but it's the only way to listen to music and navigate at the same time. The in-dash unit can play a single CD, but only if you remove the navigation map disc. (An in-dash six-CD changer is standard.)
The screens that display power flow and 15 minutes' worth of fuel-economy history on the stereo's face are a bonus, but the con is the screen's small 3.8-inch dimensions. I wasn't able to use the navigation because my test vehicle lacked the data disc. I wouldn't have high expectations for the system. The screen is too small for maps as well, and all the best navigation systems have touch-screen interfaces. The worst have rotary knobs or combination joystick/enter controls. The Hybrid's option has the latter. Considering how much automakers charge for navigation systems alone, this option package's $1,850 retail price isn't outrageous.
A sunroof and cassette player are notable missing features.
Cargo & Towing
The Escape Hybrid has 27.6 cubic feet of cargo volume behind the backseat and 65.5 cubic feet with the 60/40-split, folding backseat lowered, according to Ford. This is only slightly less than the gasoline-only Escape's 29.3 cubic feet and 66.3 cubic feet, respectively.
The folding seats work simply enough, but it's too easy to lower the cushion onto the seat belt buckles when restoring the seat to upright. The concern is that a passenger will go without the belt rather than dig for it.
Ford cites the maximum weight the Hybrid can haul, including occupants and cargo, as 1,018 pounds. A roof rack with two cross-members is standard equipment.
The Escape Hybrid is rated to tow a trailer of up to 1,000 pounds, the same as an Escape with the four-cylinder engine. The Escape V6 can tow a maximum of 3,500 pounds. If the Hybrid's capacity is lower than you'd expect, given that its acceleration is comparable to that of the V6, the issue isn't necessarily about drivetrain robustness. The battery pack adds considerable weight to the Hybrid's rear end. Weight added here diminishes the capacity because the trailer's tongue weight must be 10 percent of the trailer weight. So adding 200 pounds of battery to the rear axle costs you 2,000 pounds of trailer. This is the first true hybrid vehicle that's rated to tow at all, and that's good.
Again, because of the battery location, the temporary spare tire is displaced, tucked up into the undercarriage in front of the rear bumper.
Escape Hybrid in the Market
Ford has earned bragging rights for building the first hybrid SUV, the first hybrid with four-wheel drive and the first hybrid built in the United States, in the same Kansas City, Mo., plant that assembles the gasoline-only Escape.
The first Escape Hybrids hit California dealerships in September. The slow rollout and limited supply are sure to frustrate buyers. Ford will manufacture 20,000 units in the first model year. More than 80,000 "hand-raisers" have expressed interest on the Ford website, and waiting lists have already begun at many dealerships. Asking prices at or above the sticker price are likely. For comparison, Toyota will import 100,000 units of its Prius sedan for 2005; waiting lists for this model remain long and prices high.
The Bush administration's Energy Bill proposed in 2003 and currently gathering dust in Conference Committee would change the Clean-Burning Fuel Deduction from a tax write-off to a $2,000 credit. As proposed the bill also does a better job of considering the fuel-economy results as well as the technology. Because in the end, it doesn't matter what's under the hood; what matters is the bottom line.
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