Under the hood, the Ford Escape Hybrid is anything but conventional. The 2.3-liter Atkinson cycle engine churns out 133 horsepower, boosted to 155 horsepower when coupled with the electric motor. The key difference between Atkinson engines and the Otto engines that power the majority of cars on the road is that the Atkinson uses a modified crankshaft to trade some power and torque for improved fuel economy and lowered pollution. For most stop-and-go driving, the Escape taps into the 94-horsepower electric motor powered by a 330-volt battery pack under the cargo bed for power. With a larger electric motor than the Toyota Prius, the Escape remains in electric mode longer, and its gas engine shuts down at every stop. The electric motor consistently fires up at about 30mph and can be gently persuaded to about 45mph before making the electric-to-gas transition. Whenever you start driving uphill or stomp on the accelerator, both power trains kick into gear for lively acceleration. Unlike the Prius's undetectable transition to gas power, there's a slight nudge when the Escape's gas engine hooks up. The Escape's continuously variable transmission always has the right gear ratio for fuel economy and acceleration, and the gas engine and the regenerative braking system charge the battery while you drive. As is the case with the Prius, the Escape has an addictive screen in the middle of the dashboard that shows the power flow as you drive but adds a first-rate fuel economy screen that combines an average for the past 15 minutes with an instantaneous gas mileage bar gauge.
The all-wheel-drive Escape is one of the fastest hybrids on the road today, with the ability to accelerate to 60mph in just 8.5 seconds. That's hardly sports car territory, but it's several seconds faster than the Prius or the Honda Civic hybrid (10.3 seconds and 12.1 seconds, respectively) and is on a par with a V-6-powered Escape. Plus, the Escape hybrid can go from 30mph to 50mph in just 3.5 seconds--plenty of midrange torque for freeway on-ramps. However, it's not entirely a smooth ride. The truck registers an annoying 75dBA (decibels adjusted) at 60mph to make for a bit of a noisy drive that's on a par with the Honda Accord Hybrid but much noisier than either the Prius or Civic Hybrid. The MacPherson front strut suspension and a multilink trailing-arm rear suspension hug the road, but the suspension is also stiff enough for plowing over dirt roads. On the downside, the four-wheel disc brakes aren't up to the competition, taking 163 feet to stop from 60mph, nearly 30 feet longer than the Honda Civic Hybrid. Also, the drive-by-wire system leaves the brake pedal feeling stiff and lacking tactile feedback. That said, the Escape weighs 1,000 pounds more than its sedan cousins, so there's more car to stop, and its range is on target with that of other smaller SUVs. We were able to get 30.4 miles out of each gallon--good enough for a 450-mile trip before requiring a fill-up.
On the outside, the Escape has the aerodynamics of a brick on wheels, especially compared to the Prius's sleek shape. But remember, the Ford Escape Hybrid is an SUV at heart and, thus, offers several advantages. The truck sits high and offers excellent visibility with a commanding view of the road. For those who might feel claustrophobic in the Prius or the Civic, the Escape boasts a spacious interior to seat five adults comfortably, and there's plenty of space for hauling gear such as two-by-fours and bicycles, particularly when the rear seats are folded down (60/40 split). Plus, it can tow a half-ton trailer.
All controls are within easy reach of the driver, but the surfaces have a cheap, plastic feel, and the switches, particularly those for the hazard lights and radio/GPS navigation screen, are stiff, often requiring several tries. The steering wheel has buttons for cruise control but no one-touch access to the stereo or other electronics. Also, the three climate-control dials are crude, the air conditioning wanes when the gas engine shuts down, and using max AC keeps the gasoline engine running. On the other hand, we love the power outlet below the climate controls that pumps out 150 watts, turning the Escape into a power generator for camping trips, parties, or blackouts.
In addition to the AC outlet, our option package included side and canopy air bags, body cladding, a radio/CD/GPS combo, and leather seats. The Escape's navigation screen is integrated into the sound system, which simplifies its use, but the 3.8-inch screen is tiny compared to the 7-inch screen used on the Honda Accord Hybrid. The predictive text entry and the four-way joystick make destination input surprisingly easy. The GPS technology can pinpoint your present location but lacks an emergency screen that shows the closest public safety services--a feature found on the Prius. You can find the nearest Ford dealer in this system, but you'll have to wade through the lengthy points-of-interest database that includes casinos, parks, and dozens of other categories. The navigation system can generate driving directions in seconds and will create routes based on quickest distance and whether you want to use toll roads or freeways, but it lacks the ability to provide a 3D bird's-eye view of the road. Voice directions are read by a pleasant woman's voice who occasionally adds a polite please.
Though our test Escape comes with Ford's Audiophile seven-speaker sound system that has a six-CD changer under the passenger's seat, the audio has a harsh, tinny quality and lacks the richness that comes with strong midrange tones. Unfortunately, the only way to get satellite radio is to order the $565 Mach CD player, but it precludes getting the mapping screen. More to the point, the Escape lacks an emergency communications system such as OnStar, it has no DVD player, and you can't plug your MP3 player directly into the system.
Safety-wise, the Escape Hybrid has front, as well as optional side and canopy air bags, and achieves four- and five-star crash test ratings. It's covered by a three-year/36,000-mile general warranty augmented with eight years or 100,000 miles of coverage for the hybrid parts. Ford includes three years of roadside assistance, even if you run out of gas. The Escape Hybrid's Web site has loads of pages on the ins and outs of hybrid technology as well as a link to arrange a test-drive, but it lacks an interactive maintenance application such as those found on Honda and Toyota's Web sites. Ford runs a toll-free hotline for problems, and a technician was immediately available on the line and correctly answered our query.