I'm generally a fan of small SUVs -- like the Ford Escape and numerous others -- that have enough ground clearance to handle most Michigan snowfalls, enough people-and-cargo space for a long weekend trip or a big shopping hoist, and enough substance to tow a smallish trailer. The problem with such vehicles is that they're usually poor on gas compared with traditional mid-size sedans (which many of the cute-utes are based on).
Enter the Ford Escape Hybrid. Where else can you get an EPA-rated 30 mpg in the city and 27 mpg on the highway in a four-wheel-drive SUV for just over $30K? Sure, if you want more prestige, the Lexus RX350h is rated at a 30/28 mpg, but you'll pay about ten grand. The Toyota Highlander Hybrid, on the other hand, gets a lower mileage rating of 27/25 mpg. The Saturn Vue Hybrid models aren't quite as efficient as the Escape, either...
How much does the hybridness help Ford's little ute earn its 30/27 mpg rating? The four-wheel-drive Escape with the same 2.5-liter four-cylinder but no electric-drive assistance is rated at 20/26 mpg. You'll pay dearly, of course: the base price for the Escape Hybrid is some $11,000 (!) more than that of the base Escape (although the Hybrid does get some extra goodies, such as Sync, as standard equipment).
This hybrid system seems to work quite well on the road, with smooth transitions and an eagerness to run in EV mode (gasoline engine off). I found the brakes to be somewhat grabby, though, and I feel as though the system in the newer Ford Fusion Hybrid runs even more smoothly. Also, the Escape's CVT causes some engine drone, which can be distracting. Still, the Escape can be amusing to hustle through corners, largely because its limits are so low.
The basic Escape looks good after its face-lift from a couple years back, but this more stylish interior sure fills with lots of wind noise when you're driving on the highway. There is, however, a significant amount of fun information available on color touch screen, including hybrid status, your efficiency performance, and satellite radio, along with navigation and Sync.
Rusty Blackwell, Copy Editor