ABG First Impression: Ford Escape Plug-in Hybrid w/Video

At the New York Auto Show last week we had our first opportunity to actually go for a drive in one of Ford's new plug-in hybrid Escapes. Last year Ford announced a partnership with Southern California Edison to build and test twenty plug-in hybrid Escapes. SCE will be using the crossovers in their fleet to evaluate performance, durability and mileage. They will also be testing out vehicle-to-grid technology using the Escapes. For our drive, Chief Engineer Greg Frenette accompanied us on a half hour drive around Manhattan, mostly in stop and go traffic. We also had an opportunity to open it up a bit on the West Side Highway.

The Escape that Ford brought out to Manhattan was the first of the twenty prototypes being built for the program over the next year and a half. According to Frenette as they build the vehicles they will be changing as the company learns from the previous iterations. The current model is based on the 2008 Escape Hybrid with the 2.3L four cylinder. Future vehicles that will be built starting this summer will use the upgrades planned for the 2009 models including the new 2.5L engine. The primary mechanical changes for this unit involves swapping out the standard 2kWh nickel metal hydride battery pack in favor of a 10kWh lithium ion pack along with a charger and a plug mounted in the left front fender. Aside from that, most of the changes are in software with different calibrations to optimize the use of the lithium battery. Continue reading about the plug-in Escape after the jump.

[Source: Ford]

The liquid cooled battery pack is provided by Johnson Controls-Saft. JCS is also one of the two development suppliers to GM's plug-in Saturn Vue program. The trans-axles in the vehicles have been beefed up and an electric lubrication pump has been added to compensate for the fact that the engine is off much more of the time. The electric motor is unchanged from the production Escape hybrid. That means that the ability to run on electric power alone is still limited compared to a purpose-designed plug-in vehicle.

Although the lithium battery theoretically has the capacity to provide up to 10 miles of electric only motivation, in the real world, the limited power of the motor means that the engine will typically start up long before that. In typical driving, the battery has enough capacity to provide significant hybrid boost for about 30-35 miles before the battery is largely depleted, getting you back to normal hybrid performance at that point. Even with that caveat, Frenette reports that Ford has seen up to 120mpg in city driving and 80mpg on the highway with the PHEV.

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New York 2008: Autoblog drives the Escape Plug-In

The most remarkable thing about the PHEV Escape was how unremarkable it was. The Escape was extremely quiet and the engine stayed off much of the time as we trundled along in Manhattan traffic. Like most hybrids, the Escape has a large display showing power flow and fuel consumption as you drive. When Frenette first got involved in the Escape program, he wanted the engineers to focus on "the propulsion system, we don't need a lot window dressing." He now feels that "there is an advantage to interacting with the screen." By providing continuous feedback drivers can start to adapt their driving style to optimize fuel economy by reducing acceleration and getting off the gas and coasting sooner when approaching a stop.

Frenette feels that with the Escape PHEV they've right-sized the battery, providing sufficient capacity for most drivers to displace a significant amount of gasoline without carrying around a lot of extra weight from unused capacity. Among the areas that Ford and Southern California Edison will be testing are smart meters that, when connected to the vehicle, can automatically start charging only after the power rates drop down to lower nighttime rates. They are also working with utilities and others to try and use the same types of cells in different applications helping to increase economies of scale and reduce cost.

In our little tour of Manhattan the starting and stopping of the engine actually felt even smoother than the production Escape. The engineers on this program have made some control changes that Frenette hopes to roll into the production program. By the time we returned to the front door of the Javits Convention Center the fuel economy readout showed and average of 83mpg without really trying for maximum efficiency. Frenette says a production plug-in hybrid could be on the road within five years once the battery durability has been validated. The cost of lithium batteries still remains a major obstacle with the latest rumors indicating a potential price in the region of $48,000 for the Saturn Vue PHEV. That's a price point that just won't see much mass-market appeal, even at 80+mpg.

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New York 2008: Autoblog drives the Escape Plug-In

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