Escape Hybrid — a better idea from Ford

By Jim Meachen and Ted Biederman

Here’s an automotive question that will probably stump most people. The answer may come as a surprise.

What automaker was first to the showroom with a hybrid sport utility vehicle? Aha. You’re wrong if you instinctively answered Toyota, the world’s most prolific hybrid builder.

No, in this instance those wily Japanese got beat out of the gate. We knew the question was tough because the answer is besieged U.S. automaker Ford.

First to the consumer was the Ford Escape hybrid, which arrived during the summer of 2004 as a 2005 model.

While Ford gets little credit for things green — or much of anything else for that matter these days (although there are hints of change) — the Escape is still a viable product three years later and even more so with the introduction of the 2008 model. Let’s at least begrudgingly give Ford some credit for its many millions of dollars spent in research and its successful efforts to overcome engineering problems in 2002 and 2003 to get the Escape to market as quickly as it did.

The Escape is still the most fuel efficient SUV in America. EPA testing procedures were revised for 2008 effectively lowering ratings on nearly all vehicles, but the Escape remains one of the very few small sport utilities to still return a real-world 30 miles to the gallon carrying a new EPA rating of 34 city and 30 highway. Its city number is the best among all CUV hybrids.

A hybrid vehicle is one with a small gas engine and an electric motor to provide auxiliary power. The batteries operating the electric motor are recharged through regenerative braking, which converts the electric motor into a generator to help refill the battery pack, and by a recharging system powered by the gas engine.

The Escape is a “full” hybrid, meaning that, unlike other “mild” hybrid vehicles, the Escape can run on 100 percent electric power up to about 30 mph, maximizing in-city fuel economy. The Escape automatically switches between pure electric power, pure gasoline engine power or a combined operation of the two to maximize efficiency and performance.

While the underpinnings of the Escape, which also comes in 4-cylinder and V-6 formats, dates back to the beginning of the decade, the small sport utility has been updated in several important ways for the 2008 model year, which started in early spring. The most obvious changes include an exterior facelift and interior upgrades. The front end gets a more modern and aggressive chrome-plated nose similar to the mid-sized Explorer. Larger headlamp enclosures with integrated turn signals and lower fog lamps are part of the rather attractive package.

A stylish and substantial center stack with an information center sitting high on top gives the dashboard a more upscale persona. Controls are intuitive. But while taking several steps forward with the overall design, perhaps Ford has taken a step backward with too many black look-alike buttons. 
Gauges and controls have been given attractive ice blue LED-style backlighting.

We like the information, which displays the interior temperature setting as well as outside temperature, time and date. It can be seen by everyone in the vehicle, but it tends to wash out in bright sunlight. Some other neat features include an 110 watt AC outlet as well as a standard power point at the bottom of the stack next to a large tray.

The gas-electric powertrain remains basically the same. But it has been given a few tweaks to help it run more efficiently including updated software that makes the transition from all-battery operation to gas-electric operation smoother and less intrusive.

A 2.3-liter gas engine making 133 horsepower combines with a 70-kilowatt 94-horsepower electric motor and 330-volt battery pack mated to a continuously variable transmission (CVT) to give the Escape performance that’s nearly on a par with the optional 200-horsepower V-6. Ford says net output is about 155 horsepower and 0-to-60 launches can be completed in just over nine seconds. About the only thing you lose is towing capacity. The hybrid is rated at just 1,000 pounds while the V-6 edition has a tow rating of 3,500 pounds.

The driving experience is virtually the same as the Escape with a standard gas engine, except at stops. When the hybrid comes to a stop, the gas engine cuts off. This is one reason the hybrid is at its best in stop-and-go traffic. If the gas engine is not running, precious fuel is not being expended.

There is one aspect of the Escape hybrid that we feel Ford needs to correct — the gas engine remains on at all times when the air conditioner is running. This obviously reduces the benefit of the electric engine in hot weather. Other hybrids use an electric air conditioning compressor to get around the problem.

All models of the Escape can now be purchased with most of the good stuff found in modern sport utilities including navigation, leather seating, power seats, automatic climate control and a full range of standard safety features including head curtain airbags with rollover sensors, a tire pressure monitor and antilock brakes.

The big question facing consumers — will buying the hybrid instead of the V-6 model save enough in gas over several years of ownership to make up for the $3,000 price premium. If you are deeply concerned about auto emissions, by all means buy the hybrid. It’s much cleaner than a standard gasoline engine vehicle. And there still are some tax breaks – but check with your accountant. But most people will be concerned about saving at the pumps.

Based on new 2008 mileage estimates from the EPA, the front-wheel drive hybrid should realize a city/highway combined 32 miles to the gallon and the front-drive V-6 should get 20 mpg. 

Based on 12,000 miles a year for three years, the hybrid will use 1,125 gallons of regular gas and the V-6 will use 1,800 gallons. That’s a three-year savings of 675 gallons. At $3 a gallon — a conservative figure — the hybrid owner will save $2,025. The same scenario spread out over four years will yield a savings of $2,700, almost break even.

Our well-equipped hybrid test vehicle carried a base price of $25,075 and an as-tested price of $29,160. Extras included a navigation system and a premium package.

We think the ’08 Escape hybrid is a good choice for those people who want a small comfortable crossover that yields decent performance, a large cargo area and exceptional gas mileage.


Base price, $25,075; as driven, $29,160

Engine: 2.3-liter 4-cylinder, electric motor
Horsepower: 133 @ 6,000 rpm (combined HP, 155)

Torque: 124 foot-pounds @ 4,250 rpm

Transmission: CVT (Continuously Variable Transmission)

Drive: front-wheel

Seating: 2/3
Turning circle: 36.7 feet

Length: 174.7 inches

Wheelbase: 103.1 inches

Curb weight: 3,638 pounds

Towing capacity: 1,000 pounds

Cargo capacity: 66 cubic feet

Luggage capacity: 27.8 cubic feet

Fuel capacity: 15 gallons (regular)

EPA mileage: 30 highway, 34 city
0-60: 9.5 seconds (Edmund's)
Also consider: Mercury Mariner hybrid, Toyota Highlander hybrid, Saturn VUE hybrid

The Good

• Best city gas mileage in America for a small sport utility

• Stylish dashboard and interior

• Roomy rear seat

The Bad

• Braking distance not up to modern standards

• No stability control available

The Ugly

• $3,000 price premium over V-6 Escape