With the new 2.5 in the hybrid, 0-60 acceleration is 0.1-second quicker than the gas-only four, Ford says (10.3 seconds). Which begs the question, why not make 'em all hybrids? More realistically, why not hike production up past 25,000 per year? Ford says it is increasing hybrid production, by adding the 2.5-liter/Atkinson cycle system in the Ford Fusion and Mercury Milan later this year. It doesn't look like Ford will build more than 25,000 of those per year, so it's doubling hybrid production, and anyway, it expects buyers to respond more to a hybrid car than a hybrid CUV. If you drive a lot of highway miles, the new 2.5's 27/25 highway mpg (FWD/AWD), or even 28 mpg with the manual gearbox, is close enough to the hybrid's 30/27 highway mpg (FWD/AWD), Ford argues.

That may be true, but it's obvious that Ford isn't increasing hybrid production beyond that 50,000 - even as $4 per gallon gas makes the extra sticker cost payoff more quickly - because it has a limit to what it can lose per-car. Ford, to Chrysler co-president Jim Press' recent point, doesn't get financial assistance for such technological experimentation the way Toyota (and Honda) did from Japan in the late '90s. When Toyota announced in late '05 doubling of its hybrid production, it was clear the automaker had cut hybrid production costs sufficiently to make money on them. Ford isn't there, yet.

Ford does say the refined hybrid is more seamless between electric and gas modes, and has made transition from electric regenerative braking to traditional braking more seamless, as well. True, no doubt, but I couldn't get the Escape Hybrid engine to shut down completely in my fairly short drive. I did get a touchy reaction during one braking situation.

Should you buy one, or recommend it to people you like? If the Escape is the type of transportation appliance you need, or your friends want, it belongs on a consideration list along with the Toyota RAV4 and Honda CR-V. That's not just because the '09 Escape is a substantial improvement, it's also because the RAV and CR-V haven't much improved, in a segment that's virtually devoid of standouts.

2009 Escape/Mariner Safety, all standard:

*AdvanceTrac and Roll Stability Control.
*Safety Canopy side air curtain technology.
*Personal Safety System, a suite of seven safety technologies featuring smart airbags.
*Tire Pressure Monitoring System.
*LATCH Lower Anchors and Tethers for Children on rear seats.

Features and Connectivity:

*SYNC standard on Escape Limited and Escape Hybrid, Mariner Premier, Premier V-6 and Mariner Hybrid, optional on all others.
*SIRIUS Satellite Radio on Escape XLT and Limited, Mariner Premier and Premier V-6 and all hybrid models. Includes six-month SIRIUS subscription.
*Voice-Activated Navigation with SIRIUS Travel Link optional on Escape/Mariner includes AM/FM/six-disc in-dash changer, seven speakers, subwoofer.
*Ambient lighting standard on Escape Limited/Limited Hybrid, Mariner Premier/Premier V-6.
*Steering wheel controls standard on all Mercury Mariners.
*Auxiliary input jack in instrument panel, 110-volt AC power outlet standard, all models.

2009 Escape/Mariner
Base Price $19,750 (MT est.)
Vehicle layout Front engine, FWD or AWD, 5-pass, 4-door sport/utility
Engine 2.5L/171-hp/171 lb-ft. DOHC 16-valve I-4; 3.0-liter/240-hp/223 lb-ft. DOHC 24-valve V-6/2.5L/153-hp/136 lb-ft. DOHC 16-valve I-4 w/Atkinson cycle hybrid system, 94-hp AC synchronous motor
Transmission 5-speed manual (four-cylinder only), 6-speed automatic (four or V-6), CVT (hybrid only)
Curb weight (dist f/r) 3300 - 3850 lbs (mfg.)
Wheelbase 103.1
Length x width x height 174.7 x 71.1 x 70.0 in.
0-60 mph 8.7 sec. (mfg est, V-6)
EPA city/hwy fuel econ 18/23 - 34/30 mpg (mfg est.)