2008 Ford Escape Hybrid FWD

A lot can happen in four years. When Ford introduced the first Escape hybrid in 2004, it was the only sport-utility vehicle with a gasoline/electric powertrain. Since then, Toyota expanded its lineup to include the Highlander hybrid and Lexus 400h, and GM introduced the Saturn Vue GreenLine.

Today, there are dozens of hybrid models, ranging from fuel misers like the Prius and Civic, to high-performance sports cars such as the Lexus 600h. To compete in the current market, hybrids must stay afloat in a sea of rapidly changing technology.

Ford engineers sought a middle ground in designing the Escape hybrid, using the electric motors to boost power, and make modest gains in fuel economy. Sport-utility vehicles are workhorses: they need to be able to haul cargo and tow trailers. A vehicle that gets sixty miles-per-gallon but has no low-end torque won't cut the mustard.

The Escape's powertrain melds a four-cylinder engine and permanent magnet electric motor to produce the power and performance of a six-cylinder. As with most hybrids, the Escape gets better mileage in the city than on the highway, since the gas engine cuts out when the car is idling. EPA stats for highway driving are 30 miles-per-gallon as opposed to 24 for the 3-liter V6. In the city, the hybrid average 35 miles-per-gallon, almost twice the mileage of its gas-powered counterpart.

Base price on the test car is $25,075. A premium package that adds leather trim, heated seats and side mirrors and a roof rack adds about $1,200. The car also has a navigation system ($2,695), satellite radio and a moonroof ($995), and running boards ($345). The options, plus the destination charge bring the sticker up to $31,165: just over our cut-off for the best value category.

Uphill test

I decided to test the Escape on my favorite uphill grade between Phoenix and Sedona. Late September heat made it necessary to run the air conditioning throughout the drive. The trip included about thirty miles of rush-hour traffic, and some steep grades once outside the city.

The good news is that the Escape's power and performance matched or exceeded the V6. Whereas most four-cylinder SUVs can't get out of their own way, the Escape barreled up the I-17 freeway like a horse on steroids. High-speed cruising felt effortless, and there was plenty in reserve to pass slower vehicles on the steeper climbs.

A continuously variable transmission eliminates traditional shift shock. However, I did notice an odd vibration when the electric motor assist kicked in at seventy miles-per-hour.

The not-so-good news is the fuel economy. My 170-mile drive north consumed six and a half gallons of gas. That averages to 26 miles-per-gallon: a significant drop from the EPA stats. Fuel economy was slightly better on the trip back to Phoenix: about 28 miles-per-gallon.

That said, I still like the car. From the driver's perspective, the technology is almost invisible. Special badging, wheels and tires distinguish the Escape hybrid from the gas-powered car, but inside, both vehicles are almost identical. The battery recharges using heat energy from the brakes and other moving parts, and the gas engine runs on regular unleaded fuel.

A boost meter on the instrument panel shows the driver when the electric motor kicks in, and there is an indicator on the speedometer to show when it is running on the electric motor alone. The hybrid also has a 100-volt inverter on the center console: a handy feature for someone who travels with a computer.

Unlike some hybrids, the Escape has a traditional low gear, which I found very handy on some of the steeper hills in Sedona. It seems to work better than the ?B? gear on Toyota hybrids, which use the brakes to slow down the vehicle.

The Escape is small enough to be very maneuverable on narrow streets and through dense traffic. The optional reverse sensing system on the test car sends out an audible signal to alert the driver about objects to the rear of the vehicle. I found it very easy to back into a tight parking space.

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