Is Ford's Escape Hybrid green enough?
By Anita and Paul Lienert / Special to The Detroit News
GROSSE POINTE WOODS --There's little doubt that the purchase of a hybrid vehicle is fraught with meaning for consumers, especially in this era of high gasoline prices and turmoil in the Middle East.
As we were in the middle of evaluating the all-new 2005 Ford Escape Hybrid sport utility vehicle, we sat around our kitchen table with Linus Meldrum, a 52-year-old artist and father of three from Port Royal, Pa., who is one of our oldest friends.
Like other consumers we've talked to, Meldrum seemed to be in awe of the potential of hybrids, which combine a traditional gasoline engine with an electric motor and are promoted as being cleaner and more fuel-efficient.
"As far as I see it, there are two reasons to buy a hybrid," Meldrum said. "To be a good person and to save money by using cheap electricity instead of expensive gas."
With those kinds of expectations -- especially the sense that a hybrid may reflect on a buyer's social responsibility and goodness -- we'd love to recommend the Escape Hybrid, which is just beginning to reach Ford dealers.
But we can't -- at least not without some serious reservations and an explicit warning: You may not get the kind of superior gas mileage you expect out of this, or any hybrid, depending on how you drive it.
In other words, consumers need to have realistic expectations about hybrids to avoid the real possibility of being turned off by them early in the game.
Ford touts the Escape Hybrid as being "the most fuel-efficient SUV in the world." Based on its projected Environmental Protection Agency ratings, Ford says the Escape Hybrid has the ability to get about 35 to 40 miles per gallon in city driving and to travel more than 500 miles on a single 15-gallon tank. In its initial publicity material, the company says the Escape Hybrid gets about 50 percent better fuel economy than a conventional Escape.
But in an interview last week, Mary Ann Wright, chief engineer on the Escape Hybrid, added a huge caveat: At highway speeds, the vehicle's mileage is considerably less than it is in the city -- around 29-31 mpg.
"There are so many things that can affect fuel economy," Wright said. "We are trying to manage customer expectations."
Wright said that Ford wants to "make sure that people understand this is an awesome urban vehicle and a solid highway vehicle." But she noted that aggressive driving, weather conditions, use of the air conditioner and other factors would have an impact on the vehicle's actual mileage.
Our results with the Escape Hybrid were not nearly as good as Ford suggested or we expected. We drove a front-wheel-drive Escape Hybrid with options that included a leather package and exterior appearance upgrades, such as body-colored cladding. It had a sticker price of $30,130, including a $590 destination charge. The base Escape Hybrid is priced at $26,970.
We racked up 187.6 miles over the course of several days. Our driving primarily consisted of highway excursions in the rain along Interstate 696 from our home in Grosse Pointe Woods to Milford and another trip on Interstate 94 to Port Huron. About one-quarter of our route consisted of city driving in the Grosse Pointes and Detroit.
According to our calculations, the front-drive Escape Hybrid returned an average 26.92 miles per gallon. You can expect the four-wheel-drive version to get even lower mileage under similar conditions.
For comparison purposes, a standard Ford Escape with a 2.3-liter four-cylinder gasoline engine and five-speed manual transmission is rated by the EPA at 24 miles per gallon in city driving and 29 on the highway. The base price is $19,855.
In other words, our gas-electric hybrid returned about the same mileage we could expect to get from a conventional gas-engine Escape, or from such traditional competitors as the Honda CRV and Toyota RAV4. And the Escape Hybrid costs a whole lot more -- $7,000, or 35 percent more, if you're comparing base models.
So if fuel economy is a wash and you're really not saving money or precious resources, you're left with the other presumed hybrid benefit -- that it is supposed to reduce carbon dioxide emissions.
Then the question becomes, how much of a premium are you willing to pay to assume some environmental responsibility and assuage your social conscience?
Let us play devil's advocate and pose a different question: Aren't you better off buying a more sensible vehicle -- a sedan or a wagon -- with an equally efficient powertrain and a more affordable price tag?
When we reported our results to Ford spokesman David Reuter, he said, "If you got 27-28 (miles per gallon) in a combination of city and highway driving, it is representative of what we are getting. If you want to get 35-40 (miles per gallon), that's primarily city-only driving.
"The more city driving you do, the higher the number will be. Once you are on the highway, you are pretty much on the gasoline engine only. You don't get the benefit of the hybrid power pack."
The Escape Hybrid is equipped with a 2.3-liter I-4 engine and an electric traction motor. Together, the hybrid system makes a net 155 horsepower. Ford says the hybrid drivetrain offers "the performance feel of a larger V-6." In fact, it makes less power than the four-cylinder CRV and RAV4.
Like other hybrids, the Escape's gasoline engine automatically shuts off instead of idling inefficiently when the vehicle is at rest. It restarts automatically when you engage the throttle.
The engine is paired with an electronically controlled continuously variable automatic transmission, which is designed to save fuel. The SUV can be ordered with an optional automatic four-wheel-drive system and it can tow up to 1,000 pounds.
The hybrid version operates exactly like a traditional SUV. It does not need to be plugged in to recharge. Instead, energy is regenerated every time you hit the brakes.
At a glance, the Escape Hybrid looks almost identical to its internal-combustion-powered sibling, with the same 103.1-inch wheelbase. The only visual differences are a rear vent window on the driver's side that automatically opens to cool the rear-mounted 330-volt nickel-metal-hydride battery pack. Also, the vehicle's nameplate is adorned with a tiny green leaf to reflect its environmentally friendly nature.
The driving sensation is similar to the conventional Escape, although we noticed some occasional whooshing sounds coming from the rear. Ford said that was a fan on the auxiliary climate control that helps maintain the proper temperature for the battery pack in the rear. The four-cylinder gas engine is also noisy at highway speeds.
The Escape Hybrid appears to have plenty of power for passing and merging on the highway. It also has good ride quality and is easy to park. Because of its relatively short wheelbase, we noted excessive body roll and a slight tippy feeling in corners.
In the cabin, the Escape's shift lever has been moved from the steering column to the floor.
The Escape Hybrid also features new chrome-ringed gauges, better seat fabrics and -- for the first time -- side-curtain air bags, which are bundled with side air bags as part of a $425 options package.
We thought the interior was rather ho-hum and plasticky, especially given the fact that a fully loaded four-wheel-drive model will cost you over $32,000 -- about the price of an entry luxury sedan. The interior lacks lighted vanity mirrors and rear-seat climate and audio controls. The cabin's workmanship was only average. We noted rough flashing on the edges of the front vents, for example.
With the Escape Hybrid, Ford places itself on the cutting edge of what promises to be an explosion of hybrid vehicles in the coming years. J.D. Power and Associates, a global marketing information firm, reports that the number of hybrid models is expected to grow from five in 2003 to more than 30 by 2008.
After our short introduction to the new Ford Escape Hybrid, we're still waiting for the completely guilt-free SUV.
Ford Motor Co.
In the cabin, the Escape Hybrid features new chrome-ringed gauges, better seat fabrics and side-curtain air bags.
Ford Motor Co.
A 330-volt nickel-metal-hydride battery located under the floor of the Escape Hybrid stores energy to power the electric drive system.
Ford Motor Co.
Under the cover of the Escape Hybrid power plant is a 70-kilowatt motor and a 4-cylinder gasoline engine that together cut emissions and save fuel.
How Ford's hybrid measures up
'05 Ford Escape Hybrid '04 Honda CRV '04 Toyota RAV4
Wheelbase (in.): 103.1 103.1 98.0
Length (in.): 174.9 178.6 166.6
Width (in.): 70.1 70.2 68.3
Height (in.): 70.4 66.2 66.1
Curb weight (lbs.): 3,627 3,258 3,119
Base engine: DOHC 2.3L I-4 & electric motor DOHC 2.4L I-4 DOHC 2.4L I-4
Output (hp): 155 160 161
EPA Fuel economy (mpg): 35/40 (est.) 23/28 24/30
Base price: $26,970 $19,490 $18,990
Sources: Automakers, Kelley Blue Book