Ford Plans Market Test For Escape Electric Hybrid

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NEW YORK April 17, 2003; Sharon Silke Carty writing for Dow Jones reported that Ford Motor Co. said it won't bring its hybrid electric version of the Ford Escape to mass market until it is satisfied the vehicle is bug-free.

Plans are still under way to introduce the sport utility vehicle to the consumer market in 2004. The hybrids will first be sold to fleet customers - like government entities, rental car companies like Ford's own Hertz, and corporate customers. Ford will use feedback gathered from those drivers to further tweak the SUVs.

"We won't release it until it's ready," said Jim O'Connor, Ford's vice president of North America marketing sales and service.

Prabhakar B. Patil, Ford's chief engineer of hybrid technologies, said the company has run extensive quality-control tests on the vehicle. The battery to run the engine is considerably larger than regular cars - it takes up the entire floor of the Escape's trunk. And since batteries can be temperamental in extreme weather, particularly hot temperatures, Ford had to make sure the battery was well ventilated.

"This type of battery has never been out in the field before," Patil said, noting that batteries operate best at around room temperature.

The rear windows of the Escape have a small vent built into them. Air is funneled through the vent and past the battery in an attempt to keep the unit cool. Computers continually monitor the battery temperature.

The company introduced its Escape hybrid at the New York Auto show. Patil said it should appeal to customers who enjoy the size of an SUV, but who feel guilty about driving less fuel-efficient vehicles.

Although hybrid electric engines are gaining in popularity, automakers are still unsure how large the market will be. Patil pointed out that they show their best fuel economy in urban settings, making them ideal for city drivers.

But the engines - which are fueled by gasoline but supplemented with electric energy - cost extra. Toyota Motor Corp.'s Prius is priced about $4,000 higher than its Corolla, which is a similar non-hybrid sedan. And Honda Motor Co.'s hybrid Civic costs $2,500 more.

Honda and Toyota hybrid sales amounted to 36,000 in 2002, leaving the automakers wondering whether consumers will pay the extra costs associated with the vehicles. A $3,000 tax incentive, in effect until 2006, may be cut down to $ 1,000, said O'Connor.

A recent survey by Internet auto site Autobytel, which pairs buyers with dealers, showed purchase requests for the Prius were up 58% in the first quarter.

"The survey, coupled with significant online interest in hybrids, suggests that a significant rise in U.S. hybrid sales may be just around the corner, as major automakers prepare to roll out hybrid-powered versions of several of their established, popular models," a press release issued by the company said.

Ford officials hope the Escape, already one of its more popular SUVs, will be a hit. One of the complaints consumers have voiced about the other hybrid vehicles on the market is that they are small.

After five years on the market, Toyota introduced its redesigned version of the Prius, which is about six inches longer and an inch higher. The trunk is more than four square feet larger as well.

Ford is also entering the hybrid sedan market. The Ford Futura, also introduced at the New York Auto Show, which is aimed at the mid-size car market, will be the company's second full-hybrid vehicle.

"Futura will offer a world-class powertrain for the economy-minded consumer, the enthusiast and the environmentally committed driver," said David Szczupak, vice president of Powertrain Operations.

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