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Delivering More Than Mileage

2005 Ford Escape Hybrid

By Warren Brown
Washington Post Staff Writer
Sunday, June 20, 2004; Page G01

I drove it hard. It mattered not to me that the 2005 Ford Escape Hybrid is the world's first gas-electric sport-utility vehicle, designed to get better mileage with lower emissions than any comparable compact SUV.

The world is governed by hypocrisy. It preaches virtue during the day but sins at night. Sin usually brings higher profits.

2005 Ford Escape Hybrid

Nuts & Bolts

Downside: There is a discernible but transient "thump" when the gasoline engine and electric motor join forces to propel the Escape Hybrid from "stop" to "go." The air conditioner needs to be switched to "maximum" to keep it and the engine going in city traffic.

Ride, acceleration and handling: Very good ride. Excellent acceleration. Good handling.

Head-turning quotient: Both the Escape Hybrid and the conventional gasoline-powered Escape have fresh styling for 2005. A pleasant, less-threatening SUV appearance.

Body style/layout: It's a compact, dual-drivetrain SUV with four side doors and a rear hatch. It is available with front-wheel drive or all-wheel drive. Front-wheel drive, used in the tested vehicle, gets better mileage.

Propulsion system/transmission: A 133-horsepower, four-cylinder gasoline engine works with a 94-horsepower-equivalent electric motor to drive the Escape Hybrid. The propulsion system is linked to an electronically controlled continuously variable (eCVT) transmission (which saves fuel by eliminating fixed gear ratios).

Mileage: I averaged 23 miles per gallon on the highway and 30 mpg in the city.

Capacities: There is seating for five people. Maximum cargo capacity is 65.5 cubic feet with rear seat down and 27.6 cubic feet with rear seat up. The fuel tank holds 15 gallons of recommended regular unleaded gasoline. It can tow up to 1,000 pounds.

Safety: Available side curtain air bags for increased rollover protection.

Pricing: The Escape Hybrid goes on sale this summer. Pricing will range from the mid-$20,000s to the low $30,000s.

Purse-strings note: It's a buy.

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And so it goes with notions of environmental worthiness. Everybody wants the cleanest, most economical cars and trucks. At least, that is what consumer surveys say.

But I study sales numbers. And those numbers say that in good times and bad, Americans buy as much horsepower and road performance as they think they can afford.

Horsepower sells. Performance sells. Clean and green without horsepower and performance sit on the shelf until there is a crisis in gasoline pricing or supply. The crisis comes. Green-car sales soar. The crisis ends. Green-car sales dry up and die.

Thus, I was intrigued by Ford's claim that the Escape Hybrid could deliver up to 35 miles per gallon in the city and nearly 25 miles per gallon on the highway -- urban fuel economy is better in hybrids -- without sacrificing any of the get-up-and-go offered by conventional SUVs.

Ford's ability to deliver on that "no compromise" promise will determine its ability to build and sustain Escape Hybrid gas-electric sales.

The tested Escape Hybrid delivered.

It came straight from a factory car carrier with scant preparation by Ford's spiff-and-polish, fix-and-fine-tune intermediaries. I didn't care. I wasn't going to pamper it. I didn't.

The Escape arrived at my Northern Virginia driveway at noon on a weekday. With the exception of a brief meal break, I drove it from 12:30 p.m. to 5:45 p.m. -- round-trip from Arlington to Strasburg, Va., then back up Interstate 66 East into the District of Columbia's hellish rush-hour traffic; then back across the Potomac River into McLean; and finally back to Arlington.

In all, I drove 220 miles -- all with the air conditioner running on "normal" and the radio tuned to my favorite station. I drove the real-world median speed on Interstates 66 and 81, which often meant driving a bit above the posted speed limit of 65 miles per hour.

Don't scoff. On those highways, at posted speeds, other drivers ride your tail. You need a vehicle that can get out of the way. The Escape Hybrid did a good job of that, while averaging 23 miles per gallon on an 89-degree day with the air conditioner working.

Compare that with an Environmental Protection Agency mileage of 21 miles per gallon on the highway for a comparable Hyundai Santa Fe SUV. Keep in mind that real-world mileage almost always is about five miles per gallon less than the EPA's stated mileage. I was impressed.

But I was more impressed with the Escape Hybrid's mileage in brutal stop-and-go city driving. Most conventional gasoline-powered vehicles waste gasoline idling on urban streets. The Escape Hybrid saves fuel in the city.

Its 2.3-liter, 133-horsepower (99 kilowatt equivalent) gasoline engine works less in city driving. The engine shuts off altogether at traffic stops. The Escape Hybrid's 70-kilowatt (94-horsepower-equivalent) electric motor takes over for urban duty.

I averaged 30 miles per gallon in the city with all systems running -- that is, almost all systems running. When the engine shuts down, the "normal" setting air conditioner stops, too. Switching the AC to "maximum" in city traffic keeps the engine and air conditioner going; but that uses more fuel.

In summary, the Escape Hybrid ran beautifully under a full load. Fuel savings were substantial. Supposedly, the Escape Hybrid emitted few pollutants -- probably less than some drivers who were blowing cigarette smoke from their open windows.

© 2004 The Washington Post Company