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Escape brings hybrid power to the SUV niche

October 27, 2004|by MALCOLM GUNN/Wheelbase Communications

Naming an entry-level sport-utility vehicle the "Escape" is pretty clever: just hop in and get away . . . that's darned clever, actually.

For 2005, Ford's Escape also provides a getaway from higher gas prices by dramatically cutting down on the trips to the pumps.

Set for a late-summer launch, the five-passenger Escape Hybrid is the first Ford vehicle to showcase a dual-motor system as a way of improving mostly city-based fuel economy. It's also the first - but it won't be the last - sport-utility vehicle to feature the technology. Given the ribbing that this class of vehicle takes over fuel consumption and emissions, hybrid technology is perhaps a perfect fit.

Sold alongside the conventionally powered XLS, XLT and Limited models, the Escape Hybrid looks just like any other Escape, save for some discrete badging. For 2005, all Escapes receive revised exterior styling and interiors as well as an all-new optional four-wheel-drive system.

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Under the hood, however, the Hybrid is decidedly different than other Escape models. The engine bay contains a specially developed 133-horsepower 2.3-liter four-cylinder powerplant attached to a 70-kilowatt motor that makes the equivalent of 94 horsepower. Working in tandem, Ford claims the performance is equal to that of its 200-horsepower 3.0-liter V-6 Escape. Although similar to the base 153-horse 2.3, the hybrid's gas engine has been somewhat altered: power is traded off for fuel economy.

A 200-pound, 330-volt battery pack stored beneath the Escape's rear load floor provides the juice for the electric motor. The batteries are heated and cooled to keep them within a relatively constant operating range. Ford warrants the battery pack for eight years or 100,000 miles.

As with most hybrids, the Escape works in one of three modes: electric-motor propulsion during stop-and-go low-speed city driving (up to 25 mph); gasoline-engine power during higher-speed freeway cruising; or a combination of the two when maximum power is required, such as when accelerating at full throttle or when driving up steep inclines. Ford estimates that, in typical rush-hour traffic, the Hybrid's gas engine will remain dormant at least 40 percent of the time.

The beauty of the system, other than providing significant fuel savings, is that it works in a completely seamless fashion. The gas engine is activated in less than 400 milliseconds so the driver never notices what mode the vehicle is in.

And, of course, there's no need to ever plug in as the batteries are regenerated every time the standard anti-lock brakes are applied.

Ford says the Escape Hybrid achieves 35-40 mpg during typical city driving (depending on whether the vehicle has front-wheel drive or is equipped with the optional four-wheel-drive setup), and around 30 mpgon the highway. By comparison, a V-6 Escape would get in the 18-20 mpg range in the city and 23 mpg on the highway.

The extra up-front tariff for this improved economy - about 75 percent in town, according to Ford - is about $3,500 (partially offset by a $1,500 federal tax deduction), over and above the price of a V-6 Escape. Once you've swallowed that pill, you can begin gloating about how thrifty and clean-running your high-tech Hybrid is and how unconcerned you are about the rising costs of a barrel of crude oil.

Just jump behind the wheel and Escape.

© 2004, Wheelbase Communications

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