Review: 2010 Ford Escape Hybrid makes being green easy

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The Ford Escape Hybrid was the first mass-produced battery-assisted SUV on the market when it launched in 2004, and from day one it's delivered on Ford's promise of class-leading economy. It also offered similar performance and handling to its gas-powered counterparts with virtually no compromise. Sales have steadily risen each year and The Blue Oval even began eeking out some profit after trimming production costs by 30 percent. It's now seven years later and the Ford Escape Hybrid is a well established product that seems to have risen above the hoopla of being a hybrid. It's just a good CUV with great fuel economy. Even the president thinks so, having traded in his V8-powered Chrysler 300C for an Escape Hybrid during the run-up to the 2008 presidential election.

Ford gave the entire Escape line a visual makeover back in 2008. A year later it revamped each model's drivetrain, giving the gas-powered models new or updated engines and transmissions while also upgrading the Escape Hybrid's powertrain with a larger, more powerful 2.5-liter four-cylinder engine and new nickel metal hydride battery pack that was 20-percent smaller and significantly lighter.

But for some reason, all of those changes haven't translated into increased sales. In fact, sales have dropped each year since the redesign. A certain global financial meltdown is probably to blame, but newer entries in the small CUV segment have also given potential Escape buyers something to think about. We spent a week with a fully loaded 2010 Ford Escape Hybrid Limited 4WD model to find out if Ford's top-of-the-line hybrid CUV is still a serious contender.

Photos by Chris Shunk/ Copyright ©2010 Weblogs, Inc.

When the Ford Escape was first launched back in 2001, rear-wheel-drive, body-on-frame sport utility vehicles ruled the roost. So the Escape, which rides on a unibody front-wheel-drive platform, was designed to closely resemble the traditional two-box SUV. Ford designers did find a way to give the Escape some manner of style, with rounded lines and some relatively tasteful lower body cladding, but the Escape has never been a head-turner.

The current Escape doesn't look all that different from the very first model, save for being slightly bigger and wearing edgier sheetmetal. The front grille was given a very healthy dose of chrome that, quite frankly, is a bit over the top for our tastes, though we do like the much cleaner aesthetic of the Escape's hind quarters and the new-look taillights bring some extra class to the small crossover equation. The only visual cues that our Steel Blue Metallic tester is of the hybrid variety is a small badge above the rear bumper and a pair of badges on the front doors and front quarter panel. Not exactly Toyota Prius levels of hybrid awareness, which is exactly the point.

The Escape is like a good mullett on the inside, with the tactile-but-hard plastics on the dash representing the "business up front" and the comfy seats and excellent Ford infotainment navigation representing the "party in the back." Don't get us wrong, the Escape Hybrid's interior is a fine place in which to while away the hours, but we expect higher grade materials in a $37,535 crossover (Note: The 2010 Escape Hybrid starts at $29,860 before destination charges). Even the high gloss, black center stack, which looks great at first glance, is a finger print and dust magnet that's difficult to clean even with a bottle of Windex and a pile of cloth rags.

Among the highlights are supportive leather seats, a commanding ride height that helps the driver easily see the road and Ford's infotainment system with the latest iteration of SYNC. Switches and knobs are easily accessible and avoid the button overload that can steal the driver's attention away from the road. We're also quite fond of Ford's redundant steering wheel controls, which provides easy access to cruise functions coupled with one button access to SYNC and your Bluetooth phone. The interior is also spacious enough to cart around four adults and some of their stuff, but the back seat is a bit narrow, which makes seating for five a bit unrealistic.

The Escape Hybrid shines a bit brighter on the open road though, as its 2.5-liter Antkinson Cycle four-cylinder delivers 155 horsepower at 6,000 RPM and 136 pound-feet of torque at 4,500 RPM. That's not really enough power to motivate the 3,823 pound Escape Hybrid all by itself, but our tester's powertrain is aided by a 94-horsepower electric motor drawing power from a 330-volt nickel metal hydride battery pack. We estimate 0-60 miles per hour comes in under 10 seconds, which is par for the course in four-cylinder crossover country. The battery pack, electric motor and petrol engine all play very well together, and electric mode comes and goes with almost no noticeable strain.

In fact, we didn't feel like we were sacrificing at all during our week with the Escape Hybrid, which we're thinking is exactly how Ford planned it. When describing any of the Escape Hybrid's attributes, we don't feel the urge to qualify many statements with the phrase, "...for a hybrid." Sure, we have issues with the vague, uncommunicative steering and high center of gravity (the extra 300 lbs of the hybrid system doesn't help), but we'd qualify those statements with "...for a crossover."

The only time "...for a hybrid" comes into play is in regards to the Escape Hybrid's braking prowess. Regenative brakes and low rolling resistance tires make for less than ideal stopping partners, and the brake pedal feels spongy and unresponsive. It only took one instance of driving too close to the motorist in front of us to understand that added distance was required between vehicles in case someone ahead of you brakes hard. We took that as a hint that we shouldn't try hyper-miling the Escape... ever.

Driving a hybrid means increased fuel economy and the battery-assisted Escape Hybrid provides some encouraging stats to substantiate its relevance in this regard. The Environmental Protection Agency claims that the Escape Hybrid is 70 percent more efficient than its non-hybrid sibling. And if saving Mother Earth from an ice cap-melting Armageddon isn't your bag, we'll arm you with some more "down to earth" facts about fuel economy.

We achieved 29 miles per gallon during mixed driving, about six mpg better than a standard Escape equipped with the four-cylinder engine and 4WD. Estimating 12,000 miles per year at $2.75 per gallon gasoline, that averages out to about $300 in savings at the pump each year. If the price of fuel goes up (likely) or you drive more than 12,000 miles, the savings quickly increase. You'd likely need to drive the Escape Hybrid for 20 years to make up the minimum $4,000+ price premium over its non-hybrid sibling (assuming gas prices don't rise sharply, which they may), but keep in mind that an Escape Hybrid will fetch more money on the used car market than a conventional Escape. Over time you're looking at a decent value equation, provided the very expensive battery pack holds up over time.

And while we'd still very much prefer a fire-breathing sports wagon for our family trips, a hybrid provides its own manner of entertainment. The game is maximizing fuel economy without annoying your fellow motorists on the road, and it takes a little practice to perfect. To get the most out of the Escape Hybrid, all one needs to do is pay attention to the battery assist gauge located in the center instrument panel. The gauge isn't nearly as fancy as the growing tangle of green vines in the Fusion Hybrid's LCD gauge display, but we were glued to the battery assist gauge every time we got behind the wheel.

Now we'll pass along some tips for optimizing your Escape Hybrid driving experience. If you want to cruise in electric only mode, attempting to accelerate from a stop at a reasonable speed is generally a non-starter. Ditto if you're on even the slightest of uphill grades. After a bit of trial and error, this writer found it easiest to propel the battery-assisted escape up to about 35 miles per hour and then lift your foot off the pedal while engaging cruise control as soon as power switched to battery-only mode. That sounds like a lot of effort for only a mile or two of petrol-free propulsion, but after a few tries it feels like old hat. And forget about traveling at the Escape's 44-mph EV-only top speed. Even at 40 mph we managed only a few hundred yards propelled by just the electric motor.

Running in EV-only mode with any regularity also wears down the 330-volt nickel-metal-hydride battery in a big, fat hurry, so we found it very useful to discover the best-possible methods for charging the over-sized Duracel. The best way is through regenerative braking, where the electric drive motor acts as a generator to convert the forward motion of the vehicle into electricity for storage in the battery pack. That doesn't mean the best way to charge the battery is traveling at maximum speed until the last possible second before braking. Driving like that falls under the, "Cutting off your nose to spite your face" category, because the Escape Hybrid also charges its batteries through simple deceleration without braking. We found that letting off the gas early when approaching stops not only charged the battery, but it temporarily decommissioned the engine as well.

The Escape Hybrid's electric motor can also aid in acceleration, giving the little Ute more of a V6 kick. The trick to properly utilizing electric assist for vehicle launches is to refrain from slowly creeping off the line. Hit the gas with authority and watch the efficiency gauge needle bury itself into "assist" mode as the 94-horsepower electric motor provides a steady yet seamless boost to the 2.5-liter engine. We guarantee you won't feel pinned to the driver's seat, but you'll notice the difference all the same. Sure, nailing the go-pedal to the floor will quickly deplete both your battery and your overall fuel economy number, but it's nice to know that you've got bent-six power on the ready if it's ever needed.

So does the Escape Hybrid have what it takes to occupy a permanent spot on every CUV buyer's consideration list? We think so because it delivers outstanding fuel economy, five-star safety ratings and no compromises in a package that feels almost un-hybrid from behind the wheel. Sure, a base Escape Hybrid is over $4,000 more expensive than the starting price of the top shelf, gas-powered Escape Limited ($29,860 vs. $25,625 with no options added), and it will take forever and a day to make up that difference at the pump. But the Escape Hybrid's residual value is higher and your time between fill ups will stretch longer and longer as you practice-makes-perfect yourself into a better hybrid driver. And hey, if the Escape Hybrid is good enough for the First Family, it's probably good enough for you.

Photos by Chris Shunk/ Copyright ©2010 Weblogs, Inc.

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