How do we escape from our dependence on high-cost foreign oil? With petroleum prices surging to record levels and turmoil wracking the Mideast, that's a question that has moved from the fringe and into the mainstream of debate.
A growing number of motorists are taking the issue into their own hands. Demand for Toyota 's Prius hybrid-electric sedan has surged so dramatically that in some parts of the country, dealers are reporting an eight-month backlog of orders.
That could be good news for Ford Motor Co., which in August will belatedly launch sales of its the world's first gasoline-electric sport-utility vehicle. Ford has dubbed the new Escape Hybrid a "no-compromise hybrid," promising that the SUV won't sacrifice comfort, convenience, or utility in the bid for higher mileage.
The Escape Hybrid hits market more than half a year late, time largely spent fine-tuning the hybrid powertrain. But with the way fuel prices are surging, this case of dumb luck could play out in Ford's favor if buyers really do think the new ute lives up to billing.
To find out, several members of TheCarConnection team flew to Los Angeles to spend some time behind the wheels of the Escape Hybrid, driving a route that included plenty of traffic-packed streets, as well as open highway and a modest loop off-road. But before we report on our findings, it may be best to present a short primer in hybrid basics.
Even the most efficient automobiles normally waste a tremendous amount of energy. Hybrids use several methods to recapture that energy. So-called regenerative brakes generate electric current, rather than heat. And electric motors attached to the drivetrain can recapture waste energy when the vehicle is coasting or idling.
There are two basic types of hybrid on the road today. Honda's Insight and Civic Hybrids are so-called "mild" hybrids. Recaptured energy is stored in a small battery pack. When a boost of power is needed, it's used to power that motor/generator, which acts like a sort of electric supercharger. To further save fuel, a mild hybrid will quietly shut down its internal-combustion - gasoline - engine when idling, say, at a stop light. Tap the accelerator and the engine instantly starts back up.
Full hybrids, such as the Prius and Escape, also can operate in fully-electric mode. In heavy traffic, where you might only move a few feet at a time, a full hybrid will keep its IC engine shut off and rely solely on battery power.
There's been a fair bit of confusion, incidentally, about Ford's decision to sign a licensing agreement with Toyota . The U.S. automaker insists Escape's totally home-grown, but that some of its technology was close enough in concept to possibly trigger a patent infringement suit. Ford claims it was easier to simply pay a small royalty. Toyota officials concur.
Four plus 94
That said, the Escape Hybrid follows classic hybrid form, combining IC engine and electric motor under its hood. The gasoline-powered portion is essentially the same 2.3-liter in-line four engine found in the basic Ford Escape. In this case, it's been modified to run on what's known as the Atkinson cycle. This maximizes fuel economy, though at the cost of low-end torque.
That's acceptable in this application because when you nail the accelerator at a light, or start a passing maneuver, the 70-kilowatt electric motor kicks in. That translates into 94 horsepower, and when you add it all together, you've got nearly the performance of the V-6 Escape - albeit for relatively short bursts.
Our initial experience inside the Escape Hybrid didn't make much use of this feature. We picked our hybrid ute up at the Sony Pictures studio in Culver City , and immediately began a five-mile mileage run. It was a board-flat stretch of city streets that offered a chance to maximize the potential of a gasoline-electric vehicle.
The most fuel-efficient conventional Escape with an in-line four engine, five-speed manual and front-wheel-drive, gets 24 mpg city, 29 mpg highway. The V-6, with an automatic and all-wheel-drive, drops that as low as 18/22.
During two passes through the loop, editor Marty Padgett and I generated virtually identical results of about 39 miles to the gallon in an all-wheel-drive Escape Hybrid. Other journalists bested that number significantly, and in a front-wheel-drive model, a particularly light-footed scribe hit the 60-mpg mark.
All these numbers were generated by drivers working hard to maximize fuel efficiency. Later results fell dramatically in real-world driving, underscoring the caveat for anyone considering a hybrid. The vast majority of HEV owners - whatever the vehicle - report lower mileage than shown on the EPA window sticker. In many cases, the gap is significant. But there's also no question hybrids do get better mileage than comparable vehicles running solely on gasoline power.
Visually, you'll have to look close to tell the difference between a conventional Escape and a Hybrid. The most notable exterior changes include a stylized front fascia with integral fog lamps, and the addition of a Hybrid badge, with its green leaf a symbol of enviro-friendliness.
Inside, you'll find an all-new video display mounted in the center console. Its primary purpose is to show which mode the vehicle is operating in at any given moment, and to show how well you're doing at maximizing fuel economy. Many Prius drivers have learned to use this as a guide to changing driving patterns.
(Since there's a video screen, Ford also offers on optional navigation system, the first for the Escape.)
We definitely weren't doing much to boost mileage as we launched onto the 101 Freeway North, hoping to beat rush-hour traffic. We were glad to discover the extra passing power the combination powertrain offered, making it easy to work our way over to the left lane.
The Escape stores recaptured energy in a 200-pound battery pack tucked beneath the cargo load floor. The package contains 250 D-size nickel-metal hydride cells, much like those you can buy at an electronics store. When you're talking about a 3627-pound SUV (3792 lb with AWD)., that's not all that much battery power, and when operating in electric-only mode, the Escape will yield perhaps two to three miles range at no more than 25 mph.
Launching off the stoplight or aiming the SUV up a steep hill, you may also run out of juice if you push for too long without a chance to recharge. But we did not experience that potential problem as we exited the freeway and drove into the hills of rural Topanga Canyon.
There's no noticeable difference in handling between the Escape Hybrid and a conventional, in-line four version, despite the added battery weight in the rear. For an SUV, it's reasonably nimble and responsive. To further improve mileage, the hybrid adopts an electric power-steering system. It feels a slight bit less connected than a hydraulic system, but not enough to object to.
Our biggest complaint is the Hybrid's transmission clatter under heavy acceleration. It's a continuously-variable transmission which constantly adjusts gear ratios for maximum efficiency. CVT technology alone is expected to yield up to a ten-percent increase in fuel economy for the new 2005 Ford Five Hundred sedan.
Our destination was a hillside ranch with an extraordinary view of greater Los Angeles . The challenge was to weave and bob up a moderately challenging dirt trail. It proved no match for our AWD Escape, which should be able to handle all but the worst off-roading an owner can throw its way.
In general, it was hard to complain about the Hybrid's performance. The basic Escape has improved significantly since its introduction, the early version being one of the less refined entries into the compact ute segment. Today's Ford SUV is quieter and notably better appointed.
Ford engineers have gone out of the way to make the hybrid technology as transparent as possible to the typical motorist. They've even built in a little engine creep, the tendency for the vehicle to roll forward slowly when you lift your foot off the brake. Normal with a gasoline engine and automatic transmission, it had to be programmed into an electric motor.
That said, the hybrid version really doesn't seem to require any compromises. Except for price, that is. And, unfortunately, that's one statistic we cannot provide yet. Ford likely won't release that critical detail until about a month before the Escape HEV goes on sale. Based on industry trends, we would expect a price tag closer to that of the V-6 Escape, and likely $2000 to $4000 higher.
So is a hybrid right for you?
Even at current gasoline prices, it'd be hard to fully justify the likely added cost of the hybrid hardware solely through fuel savings - unless you intend to put on extremely high mileage or keep the car for quite some time.
There's also the "feel-good factor," the sense of satisfaction that comes for some from cutting our ties on foreign fuel supplies, and reducing the production of global-warming carbon dioxide.
And if you live in suburban Washington, D.C. , you also can smile at folks stuck in traffic as you legally whiz by in the car pool lanes, even without a passenger. California is expected to legalize a similar perk for its diamond lanes.
The long-term success of hybrids like the Escape is anything but certain. No one knows how the added hardware will last in extended, tough use. And there are other options appearing, including a new generation of high-mileage diesels. But if Ford was hoping to hit the ground running with the Escape Hybrid, it couldn't have done any better. Today's headlines will only help sell the hybrid ute.
2005 Ford Escape Hybrid
Engine: 2.3-liter, 133-hp in-line four engine modified for Atkinson ignition cycle; mated to 94-hp (70 kW) permanent magnet electric motor; combined producing peak 155 hp
Drivetrain: Continuously variable transmission (CVT), front- or all-wheel drive
Length x width x height (inches): 174.9 x 70.1 x 70.4 in
Wheelbase: 103.1 in
Curb weight: 3627 FWD; 3792 AWD
Fuel economy (EPA city/hwy): TBD (est. 35-40 mpg city, 30 mpg highway for FWD model)
Safety equipment: Driver and passenger front airbags, anti-lock brakes
Major standard equipment: Tilt steering wheel, air conditioning, AM/FM/CD audio, power windows, mirrors and door locks, unique instrument cluster, including battery gauge and message center; video display for hybrid functions with navigation system optional, unique 5-spoke, 16-inch alloy wheels and reduced rolling friction tires
Warranty: Three years/36,000 miles; 8 years/100,000 miles battery pack (except in CA emissions states, 10 years/100,000 miles)