The Ford Escape was the world's first hybrid SUV. Contrary to popular belief, The Blue Oval's gas – electric trucklette does NOT use Toyota's Synergy Drive. FoMoCo's hybrid cute ute shares some patents with ToMoCo, and that's it. And there's another idea floating around: Ford is artificially restricting supplies to limit their loss-per-vehicle. True dat. Until and unless Ford can find a way to reduce its costs, the automaker has capped production of "the most fuel-efficient SUV on Earth" at 25k special order units per year (so much for Bill Ford's 250k hybrid pledge). Tales of three month waits are not unknown. The question is, what, if anything, are we missing?
Last year, Ford updated the Escape's sheetmetal. Forgoing any remaining off-road pretense, the 2009 Escape features lip and rear-wheel spoilers for improved aerodynamics. Coupled with purpose built, low resistance Michelins, these tweaks increase mileage by 1 mpg across the range, city and highway. Visually they aren't terrible, but I miss the "aw shucks" fuzzies from the first gen Escape. Also, 1959 called and it would like its chrome back. All in all, the new Escape resembles a Jeep Liberty after the Atkins diet.
Inside, it's a makeover to remember. Ford has been engaged in a death match with Chrysler, competing to give customers the worst interiors money can buy. Judging by the new Escape, Chrysler's won. Er, lost. Slab after slab of faux piano key material replaces the nauseating plastic previously dominating the Escape's cabin. It's a major step in the European direction. Blue collar ute purists will question the need for leather in such a vehicle, but we can't fault the 60/40 tip-forward second row seats, which put the "U" in SUV.
Sure, junky parts bin drek like the stalks and switches still stink-up the joint. But the horrid "brick" radio head unit– complete with 70's-style toothpick display– is gone. The Escape's new [optional] nav unit, with Sync and Sirius Travel Link, is a genuine game changer. The screen's bright, legible and large, with no-brainer touch-screen functionality. You get the now-usual "what's it doing" hybrid display, Syncitude (full phone and iPod integration, voice recognition plus a 10 gig drive) and real-time data from Sirius: weather for one, up-to-date traffic info, sports scores, my favorite movie listings and more. Mercedes, BMW, Audi, Lexus, Infinity and Cadillac should all hang their heads in shame. Ford is now selling the best navigation system in the business. Bar none.
The Escape Hybrid still comes with a continuously variable transmission (CVT). Ford's engineers have eliminated the transmission's endlessly annoying, never-shifting whine; it finally works, feels and sounds like a standard autobox. Ford's hybrid team has also created a brake simulation module to convince Escape drivers there are normal, non-regenerative stoppers underfoot. Job done. Perhaps most importantly, the Escape's noise, vibration and harshness levels have been reduced significantly. The cut ute's ride quality still doesn't match the transplants' highly evolved CUVs, but neither does the Escape's comfort level rival that of the Ford Focus.
The Escape Hybrid is the most fuel-efficient model, but it's also the heaviest, by 300 lbs. An additional rear sway bar helps handling, but the gas – electric cute ute's as top heavy as an Anabolic Video actress, and a lot less nimble. It is, however, no longer slower than slow motion. For '09, the gas engine part of the Escape's drivetrain grows from a 2.3-liter to a 2.5-liter four, boosting net horsepower from 155 to 177. The zero to 60mph sprint now takes less than 10 seconds. If you've got patience and persistence, you can just about evoke the gods of understeer. To keep them at bay on slick surfaces, electronic stability control finally makes it Escape debut.
Every chance it gets, the Escape seamlessly shuts the gas engine down and runs off batteries. Like all Hybrids, mileage depends upon how you drive. If you're ready for the possibility of the person behind you exiting their vehicle, running up and bashing your skull in with a mallet (I love LA), very gentle throttle inputs will keep the gas motor at bay up to 40 mph. Even the Lexus LS600hL can only pull off that trick up to 30 mph. When no other cars are present you can hypermile your gas – electric Ford to 60 mpg around town.
Speaking of ToMoCo, a basic Escape Hybrid stickers at $28k. Our full-on tester would set you back $36,500 (ultimate ICE with satellite radio costs $2890). That's a lot of green. At that price, the Escape Hybrid overlaps with the seven-seat Toyota Highlander Hybrid ($33,700) AND it's not a million miles away from the Lexus RX400h ($43k). Factor in depreciation…
The Ford Escape Hybrid may be the politician's PC whip of choice, but it's still overpriced for the mainstream. If The Blue Oval Boyz aren't making money at this price, limiting supply makes a lot of sense. But you know what would make even more sense? Taking the hit.
(Ford provided the test vehicle, insurance and gas for this review)