2005 Ford Escape Hybrid Review


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FORD ESCAPE HYBRID
By Steve Purdy Detroit Bureau

SEE ALSO: New Car Buyer's Guide for Ford

We’re poised to give the Escape Hybrid a good workout. We’ll use it as the support vehicle on a video road trip featuring the cute little city vehicle called Smart Car made by Mercedes Benz and imported to Canada. (See the Smart Car review here at TheAutoChannel.com.) We’ll haul our gear and our staff – all three of us – from Michigan to Toronto on the challenging Highway 401 and out into the countryside.

What is a hybrid, anyway? Hybrids are really nothing new, although automotive applications are. It’s just a vehicle with two power systems working together, like a diesel locomotive. The railroad engines we see every day are just great big electric generators powered by big diesel engines. Electric motors move the wheels. The diesel engine just generates electricity. In the locomotive application, however, one system can’t work without the other.

In the automotive application a “full hybrid” means the systems are integrated so that either system can power the vehicle unassisted or they can work in concert when it’s more efficient to do so.

The Ford Escape Hybrid has a relatively small gasoline engine supplemented by an electric motor and a big battery. Essentially the electric motor has two jobs. First it provides propulsion all by itself from a standing stop up to a maximum of about 20 mph under gentle acceleration. Second, it makes up the difference between the small gasoline engine’s meager power and what’s needed to enhance acceleration. Both the engine’s alternator and the regenerative braking system keep the 330-watt battery under the rear cargo area charged.

We turn the key and there is a bit of an unexpected hesitation before the conventional starter kicks her over. The engine idles nicely and runs conventionally until warmed up. Once up to temperature the engine just shuts itself off when we bring the Escape to a stop. As we accelerate slowly away from our stop we are on electricity only – quiet and smooth. At some point between 5 mph and 25 mph, depending on how hard we push, a barely perceptible shudder lets us know that the gasoline engine has started.

Loaded and on the highway the Escape feels sturdy and stable. The fully independent suspension along with 4-wheel disc brakes, power rack-and-pinion steering and solid unibody construction are up to date and well done. With front wheel drive and good ground clearance the 4-wheel drive option is superfluous under most driving conditions. The Escape has been around for quite a few years now and is well sorted and modern in design and style.

The only time we use the electric motor once our momentum is established is if we need more grunt than the small engine can provide. As we slow to a stop again we can just barely feel the engine quit as the electric motor takes over. Then if we’re just creeping along in stop-and-go, bumper-to-bumper traffic we’re on electricity only. The net result is that the Escape Hybrid gets better fuel mileage in city driving than on the highway.

On at least two occasions we were stopped and showing off the engine compartment to some car guys who always like to see the guts of everything we drive. So we’re looking everything over and suddenly, without warning, the engine starts. Whoa! I guess it had just used enough electricity that it thought it needed a bit of charge. Surprise.

A film crew always has lots of gear, cameras, tripods, lights and of course some road food. It all fit well into the 29.3 cubic-foot cargo area behind the rear seat. Since there are only three of us we could have folded either side of the 40/ 60 rear seat down for more cargo area. With both sides of the rear seat down 62.5 cubic-feet of cargo space opens up. For access to the rear cargo area we can lift the entire rear tailgate or just pop open the rear window. Our camera guy took advantage of that rear window to shoot some on-the-road footage of the Smart Car cruising the 401.

A small gage on the left side on the instrument panel indicates to what degree we’re dipping into our battery’s reserves. The 2.3-litre (136 cubic-inch) in-line four-cylinder engine developing a modest 155 hp and a really modest 129 lb-ft of torque, through the electronically controlled continuously variable transmission pulls us along adequately on the highway without using any electricity. Although the 12.3:1 compression ratio seems high it does not require premium fuel. When we want to pass or accelerate briskly for some other reason the gage eases to the left showing that we’re using our batteries for extra boost. The electric motor is a permanent magnet AC synchronous type – if that means anything to you - with maximum 400-volts developing 94 hp from 3,000 to 5,000 rpm.

Rated at 36 city/31 highway for the 4X2 and 33/29 for the 4X4, you’ll surely notice that the city mileage is better than the highway number. That, of course, is because in the city you’re using more battery than engine. A 15-gallon fuel tank means a cruising range of nearly 500 miles. Our observed mileage for the entire trip was around 31.5 since we were on the highway a good share of the time.

Our ‘titanium green’ test vehicle has a base price of $26,380 according to the window sticker though the Ford web site lists two other base prices for the Hybrid Escape. After adding a few options, like the fancy body cladding and audio/navigation system the bottom line is $30,250 including a $590 destination charge. Whether there is an overall financial case to be made for owning an Escape Hybrid will depend on running some numbers. There appears to be about a $3,000 premium for the Hybrid over the standard Escape. Fuel mileage is about 30% better. My rough calculations indicate about a $300/year savings on fuel so the payoff is about 10years.

The Ford Escape is the first hybrid sport-utility vehicle for mass consumption. Toyota is working on the third generation of their hybrid system and it will soon be available in the popular RX 330 crossover vehicle. GM will soon be selling trucks with a hybrid power system. Whether or not the cost/benefit ratio makes sense, the hybrid trend certainly has momentum.

My accomplice, Mark, had his first opportunity to drive as we went to breakfast in Stratford. I was wrangling the Smart Car and beat him to the café by a few minutes. He came in and sat down a bit flummoxed. “That damn thing keeps stalling on me,” he complained. Of course he was just experiencing the automatic shut-down of the engine in the parking lot. It does take a little getting used to, but the Escape Hybrid is comfortable, civilized and competent.

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