Ford Strives to Meet Hybrid Demand

By Sholnn Freeman
Washington Post Staff Writer
Thursday, August 16, 2007

The popularity of the Ford Escape hybrid has taken the automaker by surprise and left its potential customers howling that the gas-electric sport-utility vehicle is not widely available.

Car buyers say they cannot find the vehicles on dealers' lots, in dealer inventory systems online or just about anywhere else they look.

The Ford Escape arrived in showrooms in 2004 as the first gas-electric hybrid SUV, one of just a handful of vehicles in the hybrid SUV category.Some Ford dealers, accustomed to selling bulky SUVs like the Explorer, said the Escape was their best-selling SUV.

"We would love to have them, but they aren't coming in," said Terry Greer, sales manager at Lindsay Ford in Wheaton. "When we get them in, they go out."

Dealers around the country are scrambling to get the SUVs. Customers are waiting and venting. Some have suggested sending e-mail to Alan R. Mulally, Ford's chief executive. Other are firing off increasingly bitter online posts about their experiences. "Where are the . . . Hybrid Escapes," said a shopper in an discussion group last month.

According to Ford, the hybrid SUVs were headed to dealerships in California.

"We've noticed that California represents nearly 40 percent of hybrid sales," said a Ford spokesman, Said Deep. "As a result, that state gets the largest share of hybrid production. We are looking at whether we can make adjustments to satisfy demand in all parts of the country."

The Ford Escape has long been overshadowed by the popularity of the Toyota Prius. For the 2008 model year, Ford gave the Escape an exterior redesign, and it comes with more standard features, including side airbags. The hybrid Escape gets about 30 miles per gallon, said. It sells for about $27,000, thousands of dollars less than Toyota's Highlander SUV hybrid.

In California, the hybrid Escape is selling for much as $2,000 more than the sticker price, dealers said. At the beginning of the year, Ford was offering rebates of at least $3,000 to move the vehicles off dealer lots. In June, it sold 2,526 Escape hybrids, but the number of sales fell to 1,578 in July.

Ford says the lack of supply was not the result of any problems in its production system.

Traction for the Escape hybrid could come as welcome news to Ford, which has been mired in a financial crisis since the collapse of the large SUV market. Initial development of the hybrid Escape was championed inside the automaker by Ford Chairman William Ford Jr., who has pushed the company into the gas-electric market.

Dug Dugger, general manager of Ourisman Ford in Bethesda, said Ford provides his dealership with about three Ford Escape hybrids per month.

"The demand is about five times what the supply is at this time," Dugger said. "Fuel prices will drive the need for the vehicle. We've asked for supplements in the last two months. We've been able to get nothing."

Ford also produces a hybrid version of the Mercury Mariner SUV and has plans to bring out hybrid versions of its Ford Fusion and Mercury Milan midsize sedans next year.

Dealers, meanwhile, are wondering whether Ford officials can successfully pull off the introductions, given the problems with the Escape hybrid rollout.

"If they can't supply this, I don't know how in the heck they are going to supply that," Dugger said.

© 2007 The Washington Post Company