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New Car Review: 2005 Ford Escape Hybrid

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MODEL: 2005 Ford Escape Hybrid
ENGINE: 2.3-liter Atkinson cycle inline 4/94 hp permanent magnet synchronous motor
HORSEPOWER/TORQUE: 133 hp @ 6,000 rpm/129 lb-ft @ 4,500 rpm
TRANSMISSION: Electronically controlled CVT
WHEELBASE: 103.1 in.
LENGTH x WIDTH x HEIGHT: 174.9 x 70.1 x 70.4 in.
TIRES: P235/70R16 All-Season BSW
STICKER PRICE: $23,000 (est.)

It's no secret that I believe hybrids are the way to go for better fuel economy and lower emissions. Ford, however, is committed to exploring and furthering hydrogen-fueled engines as the way to go. True, they're more environmentally compatible, but there's little or no infrastructure in which to refuel your vehicles outside of major cities. So for now, hybrids are the way to go.

We've seen small and mid-size sedans and coupes from Honda and Toyota in the past and discovered little lost performance. The Insight, Civic Hybrid and Prius all perform as well as their gasoline-engined counterparts.

Now Ford has introduced the Escape Hybrid for 2005. This is a bone-stock Escape powered by a combination of a 2.3-liter inline four cylinder engine rated at 133 hp and an electric motor rated at 94 hp. Together, they offer all the performance of the 200 hp V6 in the "normal" Escape. And the fuel economy goes off the charts.

Ford had the good sense (if annoying to the drivers) of introducing the Escape Hybrid in Los Angeles. Our test route took us through the middle of Beverly Hills and Hollywood in rush hour. Well, with all the tourists, every hour is rush hour in Hollywood. But this was not a mistake. Ford wanted to show us that the Escape can still be fuel efficient in stop-and-go traffic. In fact, our average fuel economy never dipped below 25 mpg even when we were standing in bumper-to-bumper traffic.

The reason for this is that the engine management system shuts off the gasoline engine below a certain speed and the electric motor takes over, using no fuel. The batteries for the electric motor are recharged whenever the car brakes or decelerates, so there's no need to plug the car into a wall outlet.

Incidentally, that battery pack consists of 250 D-cell batteries, a whole herd of Energizer bunnies under there.

Our first seat time in the Escape Hybrid was a fuel economy run. When I drove, I averages around 25 mpg for the 10-mile route. My co-driver decided to keep his speed below the threshold speed for the gasoline engine, and averaged nearly 50 mpg. Of course, all the drivers behind us were upset, but it showed that we weren't wasting fuel in slow traffic situations.

We also took the Escape Hybrid on a nice off-road course. Now, even though the Escape has permanent all-wheel drive, it's not a hard core off-road vehicle. But we took it up hills, on some deep dirt and sand, and over some rocks as we climbed a hill that gave us some excellent vistas of the Pacific Ocean and Malibu. The Escape Hybrid handled all the difficulties in the road and made the off-road portion of the intro a lot of fun.

In normal driving, the Escape Hybrid is no different from any other Escape. It can accelerate with the best of them (both engines work together on acceleration) and keep up with any other cars on the highway.

The gasoline engine is an Atkinson Cycle. This has nothing to do with dieting, by the way. Briefly stated, this engine has an expansion ratio that is greater than the compression ratio, extracting as much heat from the exhaust gases as possible instead of pumping heat into the exhaust system. That means you get more work out of the same mass of air and fuel compared to the standard Otto cycle. The net result is an overall increase in fuel efficiency, but a decrease in low rpm torque. However, the electric motor, with enormous low rpm torque, compensates for this.

This same engine is used in the Mazda Millenia. In this case it's turbocharged, and called a Miller cycle.

There's little to distinguish the Escape Hybrid from any other Escape. There's a small "Hybrid" badge on the rear and a small gauge on the left of the instrument panel showing the status of the battery pack. There is an optional navigation video display that can also be configured to show energy flow and fuel economy, but this can also be a distraction during driving.

A neat addition is outlets for 12V DC and 110V AC in the center console.

We know other manufacturers are planning on introducing SUVs and trucks with hybrid technology in the future. Personally, I applaud this. Among these are GMC and Lexus, while Nissan has introduced a Hybrid Altima.

All these vehicles show the manufacturers' commitment to cleaner fuel and a way of improving economy and the environment.

The 2005 Ford Escape Hybrid is the first hybrid SUV I've driven and I think it's fabulous. I can't wait to drive the others.

2004 The Auto Page Syndicate