Ford Escape Hybrid
Can an Enthusiast Live with a Hybrid?
Hybrids currently probably rank right above a Chevy Aveo on the average Sport Truck enthusiast's excitement meter. After all, what do fun-loving, party-going, rubber-laying guys have in common with the pointy-headed tree-huggers that drive Priuses? Well, the Ford Escape Hybrid may not rank as high as the late, great F-150 Lightning in the performance department, but based on its specs, it's far from a gutless dog. We were curious about what this cute 'ute was like to live with, so we decided we'd give it a real-world shakedown.
Ford was the first domestic carmaker to embrace hybrids with open arms, and has since pledged to build more than a quarter-million of them by the end of the decade. First out of the chute was the Escape. The compact 'ute has proven to be a hit with customers, and what better package to showcase its technology than a compact SUV designed for trendy urbanites?
Unlike Toyota's Hybrid SUV strategy, which combines the larger V-6 engines with the hybrid technology, the Escape combines a specially-tuned version of the base 2.3 liter four-cylinder with a hybrid system, resulting in performance that Ford claims is equivalent to the V-6 model, though most instrumented testing has shown the V-6 model to still have an edge in performance over the hybrid. Unlike conventional vehicles, hybrids generally get better fuel economy in stop-and-go urban driving. To see if this was the case in the real world, we deliberately subjected ourselves to the clogged freeways of Southern California for a few workdays, forgoing the serene and uncongested (but expensive) toll roads.
As soon as you start it up, you can tell there's something a little different about this Ford. Turning the key doesn't elicit the expected starter whir. The engine just seems to come to life spontaneously. That's because the hybrid electric motor does double-duty as starter, and with enough torque to push around almost two tons of SUV at lower speeds (3,610 lbs. to be exact), it doesn't even break a sweat turning over the four-banger. Below 20 miles per hour, the Escape often goes into all-electric mode. Meaning you can prowl around the parking lot nearly silently. Just the thing if you're into scaring the daylights out of your friends by sneaking up behind them and laying on the horn.
The driving experience can best be described as like piloting a very large golf cart, or strangely enough, a four-wheeled scooter. For the first few yards away from a stoplight, it launches in all-electric mode, and almost imperceptibly, the gasoline engine then fires up and helps push the vehicle along. If you're coasting for long periods, the gasoline engine will also shut off, but thankfully, you still retain full power steering and power braking.
In place of where the temperature gauge would usually be is a gauge with the markings "Assist" and "Charge" on it. It toggles between the two gradations depending on driving conditions. Applying the brakes sends a charge to the battery pack, while hard acceleration will make the needle swing to the "Assist" side. Likewise, there's also a video game-like display on the dash depicting the distribution of power between the engine, the electric motor, and the battery pack, which resides under the cargo floor, and moves the spare tire underneath the vehicle.
Thanks to the CVT transmission and a central brain determining power distribution, the throttle position directly correlates to engine speed. There are no gear ratios per se in a CVT, and unlike some other manufacturers, Ford's CVTs don't employ gearshift-emulation software. As stated earlier, the Escape glides away from a stop in all-electric mode, switching on the engine as needed. If you're in a real hurry, flooring the throttle makes the engine rev up to about 5,000 rpm and hang there, as the transmission adjusts the CVT pulley ratio, and the electric motor whirs along in sequence. This elastic throttle response and "shiftless" acceleration give it a scooter-like feel, with most modern scooters employing a more rudimentary version of a CVT. Once at speed, letting off the gas settles the engine in at a little above 2,000 rpm, allowing the electric motor to share in the propulsion responsibilities. While the high torque of the electric motor will let you bark the tires off the line, and get you up to speed reasonably quickly, don't go picking fights with that Grand Cherokee SRT or Range Rover Sport unless you enjoy being humiliated. It's plenty quick 90 percent of the time, but it's no drag-racer. That said, we never felt nervously low on power. Merging is just a matter of flooring it and letting the CVT and electric motor do their job. It may seem weird with the engine just hanging up there at high revs, but it will get up to 80 miles per hour without breaking a sweat.
And unlike the Prius, which wears its high-tech quirkiness on its sleeve with its doorstop styling, the Escape Hybrid looks like any other Escape, aside from a few discreet "Hybrid" badges on the doors and tailgate, and a heat duct behind the cargo bay window to help dissipate heat from the battery pack.
At 26.4 mpg combined, observed mileage was exceptionally good by conventional SUV standards, but far below the EPA window-sticker estimates of 36 mpg city and 31 mpg highway. Like many other testers have observed of hybrids, you have to drive at a pace and style that will likely tick off the drivers behind you to achieve those figures.
Probably the biggest shocker for us was the steep sticker price. Equipped with a nav system and "appearance" package, but no leather or sunroof, our tester rang up the register to the tune of $31,080. While certainly not beyond reason, that figure made us think twice about our environmental leanings. After all, for not much more, you can get a well-equipped Dodge Magnum R/T, with a rumbling 340-horse Hemi under the hood, and a whole heck of a lot more street cred. Granted, two totally different animals, but for close to the same price.
So what's the final verdict? Not to sound like politicians on a Sunday morning talk show, but it depends on what you're looking for. If you're looking for something practical, reasonably fun-to-drive and economical, the Escape Hybrid is certainly worth a look. But if you're looking for something that will peg the fun factor, and you don't care as much about shelling out a few more bucks at the pump, the aforementioned Magnum would be a more satisfying choice for the enthusiastic mom or dad. If you're willing to shell out a few more grand, the TrailBlazer SS in LS trim would be the ultimate fun-factor SUV, but count on getting mileage in the low teens with that suburban bad-boy.
If budget is not a concern, but still think it would be fun to own a hybrid, Lexus and Toyota both offer SUVs that deliver V-8-like performance with their economy, but be prepared to pay upward of $40,000 for either of those. Hmm. That Grand Cherokee SRT8 is starting to look good...