Ford's timing is impeccable. As the price for gasoline spurted past $2.00 per gallon (and headed for $3.00 in the Golden State), chairman Bill made good on his all but forgotten promise to boost SUV fuel efficiency. The 2005 Ford Escape Hybrid isn't just a bone to tree huggers or an act of contrition for the 550-horsepower Ford GT. It's also the world's first SUV that real folks who tote kids, toys, and the trappings of modern life can use to squeeze 30 or more miles out of each precious gallon of petroleum.
Like Toyota's Prius, the Escape Hybrid uses an array of electric motors, planetary gears, batteries, and four gasoline-fired cylinders to boost efficiency by approximately 50 percent and to reduce emissions to the SULEV category in California. Both hybrids share a propulsion concept invented by TRW in 1970, but Escape components are substantially larger in capacity to provide the on- and off-road stamina expected of a real SUV. Ford expects to use the same set of components in a version of the 2007 Mercury Mariner and a 2008 mid-size sedan (ne the Ford Futura).
Creeping through clotted greater L.A. traffic with a hum under the hood and not so much as a murmur of exhaust is the Escape Hybrid's forte. The electric motor does it all until 23 mph, when the 2.3-liter, 133-horsepower gasoline engine rouses with a barely noticeable shake to assist. Put the whip to this two-mule team, and the second advantage over conventional powertrains is revealed: the smooth, seamless surge exclusive to CVT-equipped autos. Passing acceleration feels comparable to that of the 200-horsepower, 3.0-liter V-6 Escape in spite of an extra 325 pounds attributable to motors, wires, and batteries.
Unfortunately, the heftier curb weight and a necessary move to electric power steering sap the Escape's driving spirit. Acceleration from rest and lane-change agility are lacking. It takes all hands and eyes on deck to maintain a linear path at cruising speeds.
Ford hasn't announced pricing, but the Hybrid Escape is likely to cost around $30,000 when it hits showrooms in late summer.