In the AutoblogGreen Garage: 2008 Ford Escape Hybrid

Click on the photo for a huge high-res gallery of the 2008 Escape Hybrid

Last November, Ford introduced the second generation of their Escape compact SUV at the Los Angeles Auto Show with a new look to fit in with the latest Ford Trucks. When the original was introduced in 2001 it had a rounder, softer more nondescript look, in keeping with the look of the then-current F-150 that came out in 1996. The latest iteration has a tougher, chunkier appearance that borrows from the style of the Super-Duty pick-ups. The prominent chrome grille stands out in front the headlights and gives the little trucklet a more distinct face that was expanded further by the optional chrome appearance package that wrapped the chrome right down under the front bumper.

The sharper contours extend to the rest of the body giving it a more grown up look, even though all the dimensions are within an inch of the 2007 model. Unlike most vehicles that seem to grow longer, wider, heavier, more powerful with successive generations, the new Escape is more than a facelift but less than an all-new vehicle. Of course that's not necessarily a bad thing, if the original had a decent platform and was the right size to begin with.

Find out what it's like to live with the 2008 Ford Escape Hybrid after the jump.

Moving to the inside of the Escape, the look is again all new. The style of the dashboard has a sort of mechanical Jeep-like look to it, again with more angular contours and several contrasting shades of brown and tan. Looking at the dashboard, I counted at least seven different combinations of color and surface texture. One cost-cutting move was apparent with most of the plastic surfaces on the Escape being hard plastic with no padding. The notable exceptions were surfaces like the arm-rests on the door and center console. It makes sense that the surfaces you touch regularly would be cushioned while surfaces that you rarely touch like the top of the dash don't need to be padded. In spite of all the different surfaces everything seemed to be put together very tightly with no misalignments or noticeable gaps. Overall the look of the interior was in keeping with the exterior.

All the Escape Hybrids have an impressive list of standard features including dual zone automatic climate control system, a dashtop information display with outside temperature readout, ABS (more on that later), automatic headlights, and lots and lots of air bags including side curtains. The Escape Hybrid that spent a week in the ABG Garage also included the Hybrid Premium Package with an in-dash DVD navigation system, roof rack and heated leather seats. The Audiophile sound system included an auxiliary input plug on the front face and even came with a cable to plug in an mp3 player sitting in the console. All together the bottom line price came to $29,825 which is pretty respectable for such a well-equipped vehicle. The price can be reduced by various tax credits that are available.

One interesting option that was made possible by the presence of the hybrid system is a center console 110V electrical outlet. Since the Escape doesn't offer a factory DVD entertainment system you can at least plug in a portable dvd player for the kids in the back without having to worry about the batteries running out. Even though the Escape only has a 103" wheelbase, the upright stance and seating position allows for plenty of leg-room even in the back. The front seats are reasonably comfortable with the multiple power adjustments on the drivers seat making it easy to find just the right position. Unfortunately, like the Altima Hybrid I drove recently, the bottom cushion was on the short side, leaving thigh support lacking.

The instruments in the cluster were large and easy to read and, unlike the Altima, the hybrid Escape got to keep it's tachometer. When the hybrid system causes the engine to shutoff, the tach needle dips down into the green EV mode zone. In addition there is an economy gauge that indicates if the power is flowing into or out of the drive train. Keeping the needle pointing straight up indicates optimal fuel economy. Like the Altima, the navigation screen can also be switched over to a power flow display that shows how the power is flowing between the engine, motor wheels and battery, which brings us to the heart of this vehicle.

The engine in the 2008 Escape Hybrid is a 155hp 2.3L four cylinder which, like pretty much every other strong hybrid on the road, uses the Atkinson cycle. Originally devised in the late nineteenth century in an attempt to get around Karl Otto's patents, the modern interpretations of the Atkinson rely on the camshaft timing to achieve a larger expansion ratio than the compression ratio. Traditionally on four stroke engines the intake valves close somewhere near the bottom of the intake stroke. On an Atkinson engine the intake valves stay open while the piston starts going back up. The result is improved overall efficiency, but it comes at the cost of low end torque. The first modern implementation of the Atkinson was on the mid-nineties Mazda Millenia which used a supercharger to make up some of the lost power (an adaptation called the Miller cycle). On a hybrid, the electric motors can provide the same kind of low-end torque boost, so using the Atkinson cycle can help improve overall fuel economy without the loss of performance.

The hybrid drivetrain consists of planetary gear eCVT, with an AC motor and a 330V Panasonic nickel metal hydride battery. The battery sits in a bay under the cargo area in the back of the Escape. One aspect of the hybrid performance of the Escape that differs from other hybrids, is the seeming reluctance of the engine to shutoff during coasting and deceleration. On the Nissan Altima Hybrid, lifting off the accelerator would almost inevitably result in the engine shutting down instantly. On the Escape the engine speed drops to about 1,000 rpm and doesn't shut-off until vehicle deceleration exceeds about .3g (a moderately heavy brake apply) or the vehicle came to an almost complete stop.

Thomas Gee, Ford's Manager of Controls and Strategy Implementation for Hybrids explained that there were two reasons for this. The first was a comfort issue for drivers to avoid the busyness of having the engine starting and stopping every time the driver gets on and off the throttle. Ford also found that it was actually more efficient to motor the engine at low rpm with the throttle closed. When the engine is shut off, they have to use a richer fuel mixture on the restart to pre-treat the catalyst to avoid NOx formation. At speeds above 40mph they prevent engine shutdowns to maximize the life of the planetary gears in the eCVT. Based on the durability shown by the Escape Hybrids in New York City taxi service, it looks the whole setup is working well so far.

Another aspect of the Escape control strategy that is different from other hybrids is the start up. When you start the Altima and Toyota hybrids the engine usually doesn't start up right away unless the battery level is low and there are loads on the engine from the climate control or lights. The Escape always starts up the engine. According to Gee, during customer clinics early in development, customers were concerned about the lack of feedback when they started the car. Having the engine start up by default gave customers more of a feeling of control. However as drivers become more familiar with hybrids they are re-examining this issue and may change the strategy in the future. Finally, when the air conditioning is running the engine never shuts down since the AC compressor is driven off the engine rather than being electrically driven.

The Escape has respectable if not exciting performance. It's certainly no sports car, but it has no trouble accelerating up to merge with freeway traffic. The steering feel is responsive and nicely weighted with no slop in the mechanism. The brakes had good pedal feel and were easily modulated. The standard Escape has a conventional hydraulic friction brake system with a vacuum booster and gets Roll Stability Control with traction control as standard equipment. The hybrid has regenerative braking that is blended with the friction braking. The electro-hydraulic brake system which is used to provide this functionality only has ABS with no traction or stability control making this the only SUV in the Ford lineup lacking that capability. Applying the throttle too aggressively on lower friction surfaces can get the front wheels spinning freely and you definitely don't want to take corners too aggressively.

The suspension is fairly compliant and well damped but this is definitely no sports car. The Escape does a good job of absorbing the heaves and craters that seem to reappear within minutes of any Michigan road being repaved. Accelerating through an on-ramp to merge with freeway traffic reveals the body roll that comes with the upright stance. It's not scary roll but it's definitely not what you'll experience in any modern passenger car.

Personally, I'm not a fan of SUVs large or small. I've always had the belief that a truck is a great thing to be able to borrow. But then I only have two kids and no boats or trailers to tow. I prefer my driving position closer to the ground with a lower center of gravity. However, if you like the higher driving position afforded by an SUV or CUV and don't need a third row of seating or to tow more than 1,000 pounds, the Escape hybrid is an excellent choice. The EPA has now posted the fuel economy numbers based on their revised 2008 testing regime. The updated numbers for the 2007 Escape indicate that in spite of what appears to be a carryover drivetrain, the new calibrations have resulted in an improvement in efficiency for 2008. The '08 model is rated at 34/30 mpg city/hwy compared to 31/29 for the old model. During the course of my week with the Escape I accumulated 406 miles with a fairly even mix of urban stop and go and highway driving.

The week included several hot days that required air conditioning which of course meant no engine shut-off and I still managed an average of 30mpg. I experimented with different driving styles including moderate acceleration and trying to maintain constant speed as well as the pulse and coast method and it made no noticeable difference in economy. The upright stance and relatively poor aerodynamics (compared to a Prius or Civic) probably limited the coasting range to the point where it made no difference. As compact SUVs go, the new Escape is probably the best choice today for North American drivers concerned about rising fuel prices.

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