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Ford developing fuel-thrifty engine for SUV - Financial Times

Jeremy Grant writing for the Financial Times in Chicago reported that

Ford, the US automaker, said on Tuesday it was developing a hybrid fuel and battery-driven vehicle based on its best-selling Escape sports utility that would double the vehicle's mileage per gallon.

The move is partly aimed at combating increasing perceptions in North America that the SUV - one of the most successful vehicle segments to have emerged in recent years - is an uneconomical gas-guzzler.

Prabhakar Patil, responsible for the hybrid engine programme at Ford, said the company was working with various partners on installing a hybrid engine system in the Escape, the smallest in Ford's range of SUVs.

Ford aimed to have the new vehicle on the road by the end of next year.

Hybrid engines involve an electrically powered unit that kicks in when the main, fuel-driven unit is automatically switched off - for example at traffic lights or when the car is moving slowly. The arrangement saves on fuel.

In the case of the Escape, the fuel savings would mean the vehicle could achieve 40 miles per gallon in cities, compared to half that using the current conventional engine, Mr Patil said. There would be no loss in performance. "[The hybrid] allows you to make the fuel fired engine smaller, without affecting performance. Some people want fuel economy but not at the expense of performance," he said.

Ford is collaborating with Sanyo of Japan on a nickel hydride battery for the electric unit and a "trans-axle" system that would integrate the two engines. This is being developed jointly with Aisin AW, a Japanese car parts maker in which Toyota has a stake.

Ford has yet to decide on unit volume for the hybrid Escape, but the company is planning it as a mass-volume vehicle. It will be built on Ford's existing Escape platform at a plant in Kansas City. "We're setting it up to be able to produce tens of thousands of units but in terms of exact volume it's too early to make the call until we know what will happen with fuel prices and taxes," Mr Patil said.