In the AutoblogGreen Garage: 2009 Ford Escape Hybrid Limited FWD

Click the 2009 Escape Hybrid for a high-res gallery

The very first production hybrid from a Detroit automaker has been with us since 2004 and going into the 2009 model year it has finally completed its second generation transformation. In 2007, Ford redesigned the all the visible elements of the Escape but largely carried over mechanical components. We drove the updated 2009 model a couple of months ago over a brief route and now we've had a chance to spend a full week with the revamped hybrid.

In June of last year we drove the then new 2008 Escape hybrid and came away reasonably impressed. The styling of the newest Escape had less of the soft-roader look of the original in favor of a "tougher, chunkier appearance" more in keeping with its truck siblings. The only visual distinction between the '08 and '09 models is a deeper, wider front air-dam and small spats in front of the rear wheels. These improve the air flow around the bottom of the vehicle, cutting highway fuel consumption by about 0.67 mpg at 70 mph. The really key differences in the '09 model aren't apparent to visual inspection and you can read how those panned out after the jump.

Photos Copyright ©2008 Sam Abuelsamid / Weblogs, Inc.

All 2009 Escapes (and Mariners and Tributes too) get a new 2.5L four cylinder engine and revamped 3.0L V6. Even the hybrids get the new 2.5L engine, although it stays with an Atkinson cycle engine as before. The Atkinson cycle as used on most hybrids keeps the intake valve open longer after the piston reaches bottom dead center. This results in a compression stroke that is effectively shorter than the power stroke. An Atkinson cycle is more efficient but produces less torque than a conventional Otto cycle. Hybrids compensate by using the electric motor to fill in the gaps in the torque.

The hybrid transmission and battery systems remain the same for the 2009 Escape. A further updated second generation hybrid system will debut at the end of this year on new Fusion and Milan hybrids. The Escape does get a new control system for the hybrids which further enhances the smoothness of the system. The brake system has also undergone a significant upgrade. Last year, the hybrid was only Escape variant that didn't have standard stability control, but that oversight has now been remedied.

The hybrids use a different slip control system from the regular models which provides the blending of the regenerative and friction braking. The first generation didn't incorporate either traction control or stability control functionality. This year, a newly-designed hydraulic unit provides the same capability as all non-hybrid models as well as improving the pedal feel.

For our drive we got the new-for-2009 Hybrid Limited model. The Limited gets 16" aluminum wheels with a design unique to the hybrids along with some extra exterior chrome. On the inside animal hides cover the seats and steering wheel while the center console gets shiny piano black and chrome trim that adds an upscale and attractive touch. The Limited also includes the Sync auxiliary input and voice command system as standard.

Ford's updated the 2009 navigation and entertainment system including Sirius Travel Link. The new interface on the touch screen display has a more modern, higher resolution look than before and is able to display up to three panes with different information. For example, the left half of the screen can display the navigation map while the right can be split between the audio control and hybrid system status. Ford is rolling this new interface out on all of its 2009 models except for those that are getting early 2010 model introductions, like the Mustang and Fusion.

The system is by far the easiest to navigate of any manufacturer out there and Sync allows the head unit to control devices like iPods, Zunes and phones with voice controls. Speaking of voice control, Ford has the most robust such system I've tried from any company and it works great as long as there aren't two or more people trying to give it commands at the same time. The voice control system has simple easy to remember commands like "Destination," "POI," and "Audio." After pressing the voice button on the right side of the steering wheel, it mutes the audio system and listens for a command. Say "destination...POI" and the system presents a list categories from which to choose. If there are several close matches, it presents a list and asks the user to choose a line number. Compared to the systems provided so far by German luxury car makers, this one works reliably and without any fuss.

The updated system also adds a USB connector in addition to the 1/8" stereo plug that was present before. The USB connection allows direct access to play-lists, artists, genres, etc. from the audio system. The only downside to this system is that when you first plug in a device it goes through and reads all the ID3 tag information from all the tracks and creates an index that allows the Sync system to control it. If you have a smaller capacity flash based device like an iPod Nano this only takes a minute or two. If you have a larger capacity hard drive player with thousands of songs, this can take up to 10 minutes. If the contents of the device don't change, subsequent plug-ins take no time and the device is ready. If like me you listen to podcasts and update even a few tracks on the player daily, it re-reads the entire device. Until the index is updated the device starts playing from where you last listened and only allows you to go to next track of previous, you can't navigate the full menu. This however is a minor annoyance, since most people don't seem to have 7,000 plus tracks on their devices.

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Autoblog tours Ford's Travel Link Navigation Syste

On the road, the under-skin changes to the Escape become readily apparent when you start driving. Several areas of the structure of the Escape have been beefed up with more use of high-strength steel, giving it more solidity. The suspension has been re-tuned and now has a rear anti-roll bar for the first time. The overall impression is of a quieter, more refined driving environment. That's a benefit in a number of ways. The changes to the hybrid control strategy mean that the engine can now be off more frequently and at higher speeds.

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Autoblog tours Ford's Travel Link Navigation Syste

While previous iterations could only operate in electric only mode at speeds up to 24 mph, the 2009 model can shut off the engine at speeds up to 40 mph. Actually getting from a stop up to 40 mph without starting the engine is extremely difficult (almost impossible in fact) because of the limited output of the motor. A gentle foot on the accelerator can get the Escape up to over 20 mph without depleting the battery. When the battery is charged, easing off the throttle at speeds in the upper 30s can now readily shut down the engine allowing the Escape to cruise along silently on electrons alone.

With the ability to operate in electric mode at higher speeds now available, making engine-on operation quieter was important to minimize the noise difference between the modes. Ford's engineers have succeeded making this one of the quietest SUVs I've ever driven. On the initial drive from Dearborn back to my Ann Arbor office, the Escape averaged an admirable 32 mpg. A couple of days of mostly around town driving saw that number climb to a little over 34 mpg, dipping back to 32 on another highway run. I wasn't trying to hyper-mile or do any pulse and glide techniques, just drive sensibly with gentle acceleration and braking and over the course of a week, we averaged just over 33 mpg, which is excellent for a high riding vehicle with a relatively blocky shape and a standard roof rack.

The new engine is smoother and quieter operating than the original 2.3L and provides better acceleration when needed for merging onto the highway or passing. Unfortunately, the base price of the front wheel drive Escape hybrid has climbed from $27,445 to $29,305 for 2009. Ford has added several features as standard equipment this year including the electronic stability control, SYNC, auto-dimming rear view mirror as well as the powertrain changes. Our FWD Limited tester including the navigation system prices out to a fairly hefty $35,100 including destination charges.

The Escape starts about $2,300 more than a Saturn Vue hybrid but also gets significantly better fuel economy compared to the Saturn's mild hybrid system. The larger, heavier Saturn does offer more interior volume but isn't available with all-wheel-drive like the Escape. Later this year, Saturn will launch a two-mode hybrid system in the Vue which will make for an interesting comparison against the Escape. It will be interesting to see how much more expensive the Two-Mode Vue will be.

Photos Copyright ©2008 Sam Abuelsamid / Weblogs, Inc.

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