Escape Hybrid's efficiency appealing

The Escape Hybrid can run on electric power up to 25 mph. The Escape Hybrid can run on electric power up to 25 mph. (Ford Motor Co.)
Email|Print|Single Page| Text size + By Mike Hanley
Cars.Com / June 7, 2008

Small SUVs are relatively efficient compared with their larger counterparts, but even in one of these models, topping off the tank can get pricey when gas is pushing $4 a gallon - as it is in many places around the country.

What's an SUV shopper to do? If you're not ready to downsize to a small car, the 2008 Ford Escape Hybrid remains one of the most efficient small SUVs available today, with an EPA-estimated 34/30 miles per gallon (city/highway) for the front-wheel-drive model; those numbers reflect the tougher EPA testing procedures that go into effect for 2008 models. These estimates are easily within reach, and aside from some hybrid-specific drivetrain characteristics, the Escape Hybrid drives like a conventional small SUV. Unfortunately, the hybrid system is one of the Escape Hybrid's few bright spots in an otherwise underwhelming package.

Like its predecessor, the 2008 Escape Hybrid uses a gas-electric powertrain that consists of a 2.3-liter four-cylinder engine and an electric motor. Total system output is 155 horsepower, and a continuously variable automatic transmission is standard. Even though the Escape Hybrid's powertrain is mechanically the same as the 2007, extensive software modifications were made to the control system so it would run on electric power more often and transition more smoothly between electric and gas/electric modes, according to Ford spokesman Mark Schirmer.

The Escape Hybrid moves in near silence on electric power alone. Ford says the maximum speed it can hit this way is about 25 miles per hour. In one instance, I managed to accelerate to 27 without the Escape's gas engine starting, but it required very gentle and even pressure on the gas pedal that wouldn't be practical on busy roads.

There's a slight shudder when the gas engine starts, but the engine's noise is more noticeable if you've been traveling awhile on electric power.

The Escape Hybrid delivers acceptable acceleration that gives it enough power to get up to highway speeds safely, but it isn't a power-oriented hybrid like the Lexus GS 450h. The upside, of course, is better gas mileage. Once up to highway speeds, a fair amount of wind noise penetrates the cabin.

Even though the new cabin styling is an improvement over the previous Escape Hybrid's, it still lags behind the Honda CR-V and Hyundai Santa Fe in terms of material quality and panel fit. Things you'd expect to find, like grab handles, are absent, and other features are poorly executed, like the incredibly cheap-looking sunglass holder near the rearview mirror.

Automatic dual-zone air conditioning is standard, but its display is incorporated into Ford's new dash-top readout screen, which is less than ideal because you have to look first for the temperature or fan-speed control knob and then to the screen that's sitting higher up to see the result of your action. A consolidated arrangement would make more sense. I did like the bright blue backlighting of the gauges and controls - it really enhances the appearance of the cabin at night.

Fabric seating surfaces made of recycled plastic and polyester fibers are standard, while leather seats are optional. The leather front seats are narrow, but comfort is still OK. Headroom is good, even with the optional moonroof.

The 60/40-split rear bench seat isn't the picture of configurability. In order to fold the seats down to make a longer cargo floor, you first have to flip the bottom cushion forward, remove the head restraints, then fold the backrest down. It's two steps more than the best designs out there, where all you need to do is fold down the backrest. At least once you've taken the time to fold the seats, the cargo floor is completely flat.

The backseat doesn't slide forward and back, and its back rests don't recline (more shortcomings), but outer-seat comfort and legroom are decent. Like the first row, headroom is plentiful. The second row lacks a flip-down center armrest, but this deficiency contributes to surprisingly good middle-seat comfort. Thanks to the lack of a floor hump, legroom is also acceptable.

Standard safety features include side-impact airbags for the front seats and side curtain airbags. Ford's AdvanceTrac electronic stability system with Roll Stability Control is standard on conventional Escape SUVs, but it's not offered on the Escape Hybrid due to complexities involved with integrating the technology with the regenerative braking system, Schirmer said.

The Insurance Institute for Highway Safety hadn't tested the Escape Hybrid as of publication, but in National Highway Traffic Safety Administration frontal tests, the SUV received only three stars for driver protection - an unacceptably low score for an updated model.

Three stars suggest the driver has a 21 percent to 35 percent chance of sustaining a serious injury if involved in a head-on collision with a similar-size vehicle at 35 miles per hour. This score is actually lower than the 2007 Escape Hybrid's four-star rating. Meanwhile, the score for the front passenger has improved to five stars - the highest rating - from four for the 2007 model.

The Escape Hybrid's cargo area is slightly smaller than the regular Escape's, but the differences are minor. The hybrid has 27.8 cubic feet of cargo room, and folding the second-row seats brings the total to 66 cubic feet. Unlike the regular Escape, which has a storage well under the cargo floor, there's no such area here because the space is taken by the hybrid's high-voltage battery pack.

Maximum towing capacity when properly equipped is 1,000 pounds. In comparison, the four-cylinder Escape can tow 1,500 pounds, and the V-6 model can handle 3,500 pounds.

Priorities are key when considering the Escape Hybrid; they could easily swing your decision one way or the other. For the Escape Hybrid to be worth your money, you really have to be buying it for its hybrid credentials: fuel savings (especially in the city) and low emissions. Why? When you start to factor in its other, less desirable attributes - like archaic rear-seat folding, spotty interior quality, and less-than-stellar crash-test performance - the hybrid opens the door to competitors from Honda, Toyota, and Hyundai. With gas prices surging, however, maybe a proven hybrid system is a powerful enough reason to consider the Ford.

Base list prices $26,640-$28,390
EPA fuel economy 29-34 mpg city; 27–30 mpg highway
Engine 133-hp, 2.3-liter I-4 (gasoline hybrid)
Transmission 2-speed CVT w/OD

New or notable
  • New styling for 2008
  • Can run on electric power alone
  • Standard side curtain airbags
  • Optional navigation system with hybrid-drive readouts

    What we like
  • Hybrid drivetrain performance
  • Gas mileage
  • Front- and rear-seat headroom
  • Second-row middle-seat comfort

    What we don't
  • NHTSA three-star front crashtest rating (driver)
  • Squishy brake pedal feel
  • Rear seats have outdated folding design
  • Spotty interior quality
  • Stability system not offered


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