Ford now joins the hybrid game with the market's first gas/electric-powered compact SUV. The Escape Hybrid is a full hybrid, meaning the powertrain can move the vehicle in gas-only or electric-only modes (or a combination of both), depending on conditions.

The Escape Hybrid is powered by a 2.3-liter DOHC four-cylinder Atkinson cycle engine, which gives up some low-end torque--about four percent--in the name of improved efficiency. This minimal loss of torque is compensated for by a 70kW (equivalent to 94-horsepower) electric motor that can power the Escape to speeds of 25 mph through the continuously variable transmission.

Some 250 D-size nickel-metal-hydride battery cells, connected in series, make up the 330-volt system, which can smoothly restart the gasoline engine instantly. The battery pack has its own ventilation and thermal management system to deal with temperature extremes (from -40 to 122 degrees F) and comes with an eight-year/100,000-mile warranty.

The system works by recharging the batteries with the regenerative front disc brakes or (if needed) with the gasoline engine when lifting off of the throttle. Like all true hybrid vehicles, it never requires plugging in. While final EPA numbers are pending, Ford estimates 31 to 40 mpg in the city and 26 to 31 mpg on the freeway, much of the variance depending on a front- or all-wheel-drive configuration.

A by-wire system is used to manage the throttle, power steering, and four-wheel disc brakes and all offer surprisingly predictable feel and response. ABS is standard, while multifunctional navigation and audiophile-quality stereo systems are optional. In addition, the Escape Hybrid can be equipped for a 1000-pound towing capacity.

From our limited first drive, this is clearly the smoothest, most invisible hybrid product we've tested to date. And Ford claims 85 percent of the vehicle's parts are recyclable. Score one for planet earth.