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Car Review : 2005 Ford Escape Hybrid 4WD

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The new Ford Escape Hybrid goes a long way towards making a hybrid just another vehicle, not a technophile novelty.

It's supposed to be ``The Year of the Car'' at Ford, and the Blue Oval folks have plenty of interesting new products to support that slogan. But that may be by was of compensation, for in the recent past ``Ford'' has been nearly synonymous with ``SUV.'' Its Explorer virtually defined the mid-sized civilized SUV segment from the day of its introduction. When something larger was needed, the Expedition debuted. And to fill out the line in a more compact size, the Escape was created. There was and is something everyone in the way of an SUV at Ford.

But there has also been an anti-SUV backlash. According to some, SUVs are too big, and consume more than their fair share of non-renewable resources. They can be seen as poster children for wretched excess. So what could be a better way to fight those sentiments and move gasoline-electric hybrids further toward the automotive mainstream than to make an ultra-efficient hybrid SUV?

This is just what Ford has done with its new Escape Hybrid. The Escape Hybrid is a full hybrid, capable of running under gasoline power, electric power, or a combination of both. It breaks new ground for hybrid vehicles. Not only is it the first hybrid SUV, it's the first hybrid of any sort with four-wheel drive, if the optional ``Intelligent 4WD System''(tm) is specified. And it's the first hybrid rated by its manufacturer for towing, with a capacity of 1,000 lbs, the same as the regular four-cylinder Escape without the towing package.

At heart, the Hybrid is a four-cylinder Escape. Its engine is basically the same, but modified for increased efficiency. It makes a maximum of 133 horsepower, compared to the normal four-cylinder Escape's 153. However, the electric motor adds 94 horsepower to that, although the two don't reach peak power at the same time. So acceleration is close to that of the V6, and better than the regular four-cylinder models. Power from each source is fed into an electronically-controlled continuously-variable transmission (CVT), and from there to the wheels. As with other full hybrids, the electric motor powers the vehicle at low speeds, such as the stop-and-go commute creep, and the gasoline engine is the main power source at highway speeds. At other times, they work together, in dynamically-changing proportion. To further save fuel, the gasoline engine shuts off when coming to a stop, and restarts automatically when the accelerator is pressed.

What Ford has done in creating the Escape Hybrid is to make a four-cylinder vehicle with the performance of a V6, and better fuel economy than either a four or a six. The Escape Hybrid takes the internal combustion-electric hybrid to the heart of the American vehicular mainstream. Driving an Escape Hybrid requires no sacrifice of interior space, functional utility, or performance. The batteries recharge as it is driven, and it runs on regular gasoline.

I've been driving an Escape Hybrid for the past very interesting week. As with most other current hybrids, it is most remarkable for being unremarkable - meaning that in driving, it is little different from an equivalent gasoline-powered model. I've spent time with a V6 Escape XLT recently, and it is still fresh in mind. The differences between the two in the daily driving experience are minimal. The Hybrid's ride is a little - operative word ``little'' - stiffer and less nimble, likely because of its 300-lb. greater weight and different tires. It costs about $3,500 more, but goes significantly further on a gallon of gasoline, with a 30-mpg average versus the V6's 18. The new Ford Escape Hybrid goes a long way towards making a hybrid just another vehicle, not a technophile novelty.

Exterior And Interior: Because the stylistic differences between the Hybrid and other Escapes are minor, I'll concentrate on the driving experience. For the most part, the Hybrid has the same exterior and interior upgrades as all Escapes this year. How can you tell the Hybrid from other Escapes outside? It has special badging, with a road-and-leaf ``HYBRID'' emblem. And, if you look very closely, the driver's-side rear quarter window is shorter than normal, to make room for the battery compartment vent. That's it. Inside, it's much the same. The Hybrid does have a unique instrument cluster, with a special gauge that shows whether the batteries are charging or discharging. And the tachometer has a ``green zone'' below zero rpm. The needle goes there during electric operation. If specified, a small LCD screen is found top and center in the dash. It does double duty as the navigation system display and can also display fuel economy and power mode. Other than that, it's the same comfortable, usefully-sized Escape as any other, with room for five and lots of cargo. The hybrid system causes no loss of interior space.

Safety: Again, the Hybrid is an Escape, and has the same construction and safety systems. Brakes are four-wheel antilock discs.

On The Road: Walk up to the Escape Hybrid and press ``unlock'' on the remote entry fob. The doors unlock, as in any Escape, and a small pump somewhere under the hood whirs. That's the first clue that something is different. Get in, turn the key, and the engine starts and settles to idle. Backing out of the driveway, the engine may turn off, depending on battery charge. Running electrically, an Escape Hybrid is very quiet. When accelerating from a stop, the engine gets full assist from the electric motor. An electric motor develops maximum torque as soon as it starts to rotate, making it the perfect propulsion for low-speed acceleration. I didn't do any timed acceleration runs, but the Hybrid feels stronger than the V6 up to about 35 mph. Above that speed, the engine does most of the work, with assistance from the motor. They both feed power into the CVT, which uses a planetary gearset and electronic controls to determine the most efficient mix of power and gear ratio to use at any given time. Since it has no discrete gear ratios, it never shifts in the manner of a conventional transmission, and so is extremely smooth.

My test Hybrid had the optional ``Intelligent 4WD'' single-range four-wheel drive system. It is exactly the same as that found in other Escapes. The vehicle operates in front-wheel drive mode until the front wheels lose traction, at which time the computer-controlled center clutch sends power to the rear wheels. It is completely transparent in operation.

Hybrids are bought for their improved fuel economy, and the Escape Hybrid, while not as economical as smaller, lighter hybrid cars, does go considerably further on a gallon of unleaded regular than its gas-only relatives. I averaged around 30 mpg for a week with more than the usual amount of highway driving, and highway fuel economy is not a hybrid's strongest point. Watching the ever-entertaining fuel-economy display, I saw 32 on the highway at a steady 70 mph (that's in the slow lane around here!), 35 in town at slower, stop-and-go (electric mode) speeds, and 27 in faster, cutthroat traffic with heavy acceleration and deceleration. The 18 mpg I got with the V6 Escape was the product of a lot of spirited back-road driving. Figure around 20 for the same sort of driving as I did in the Hybrid. Hey, the Hybrid has a 50 percent improvement!

Fuel economy is not the only benefit of the hybrid system. You get better brakes as well. Like other hybrids, the Escape uses regenerative braking to charge the battery pack. What this means is that when decelerating, the traction motor becomes a generator, and the electricity generated is fed to the batteries. The magnetic drag created when the motor works as a generator helps slow the car - very noticeably. The result is both shorter stopping distances and longer brake life. And the brakes are four-wheel discs, with standard antilock.

Ride and handling differences? Few. At nearly 3,800 lbs, the Hybrid weighs about 320 lbs. more than the Escape V6. While there is no word as to suspension calibration changes, the Hybrid felt like it had softer springs and shocks, and it had stiffer-riding tires. Not surprisingly, it didn't feel as nimble as its lighter cousin, but it still rides and handles like a car, not a truck. It's like a gas-only Escape with a couple of passengers.

2005 Ford Escape Hybrid 4WD Base Price $ 26,380 Price As Tested $ 30,825 Engine Type gasoline engine: aluminum alloy dual overhead cam 16-valve inline 4-cylinder electric motor: permanent magnet AC synchronous Engine Size 2.26 liters / 138 cu. in. Horsepower 133 @ 6000 rpm (94 hp @ 3000 - 5000 electric motor) Torque (lb-ft) 129 @ 4500 rpm (motor n/a) Transmission electronically-controlled continuously variable transmission (eCVT) Wheelbase / Length 103.2 in. / 174.9 in. Curb Weight 3782 lbs. Pounds Per Horsepower n/a Fuel Capacity 15.0 gal. Fuel Requirement unleaded regular gasoline Tires P235/70 TR16 Continental ContiTrac Eco Plus m+s Brakes, front/rear vented disc / solid disc, antilock standard Suspension, front/rear independent MacPherson strut / independent multilink Drivetrain front engine, automatic on-demand four-wheel drive. PERFORMANCE EPA Fuel Economy - miles per gallon city / highway / observed 33 / 29 / 30 0 to 60 mph 10.6 sec OPTIONS AND CHARGES Appearance package $ 625 Leather Comfort Group $ 575 Hybrid Energy Audiophile & Navigation System $ 1,850 110v Power Outlet $ 110 Safety Package $ 595 Cargo Cover $ 75 Rear Floor Mats $ 25 Destination & Delivery $ 590