Externally, the look has been refined--particularly in the Limited trim level, with its chrome trim--and in the cabin, the old CD-based navigation and external CD-changer has been replaced with a hard-drive-based navigation and audio system powered by Ford's spectacular best-in-class Sync voice command system.
The 2009 Ford Escape's hybrid drivetrain has also been refined, resulting in a thoroughly pleasing city driving experience. Unfortunately, we can't exactly say the same for the Escape Hybrid's highway manners.
On the road
Twisting the key of the Ford Escape Hybrid causes the gasoline engine to come to life. Have no fear; your Hybrid isn't broken. This initial cranking of the engine exists to warm the emissions components to operating temperature so that when you need the gasoline engine for cruising, it can be as clean as possible.
After a short while, the gasoline engine shuts off and we're ready to go.
Easing onto the accelerator, the Escape Hybrid creeps forward in almost complete silence, the only sound being the low-rolling resistance tires squeaking on the smooth concrete floor of the CNET garage.
We were able to get the boxy hybrid up to 35 mph under purely electric power with a slight downward grade, but under most conditions the gasoline engine kicks in at 20 mph. A heavy load, such as traveling uphill or hard acceleration, will cause the engine to start sooner.
We started to make a game out of keeping the gasoline engine off for as long as possible. In slow-going San Francisco rush hour, we were able to keep the Escape emissions-free for about 75-percent of surface road driving. We found it amazing how a hybrid vehicle can make even stop-and-go traffic more tolerable and interesting.
When we weren't playing the hypermiling game, we were entertained by Ford's Sync system, which let us select songs simply by hitting a button and telling it what artist, album, or song we wanted to hear. A neat command called "Similar Music" worked like Apple iTunes' Genius feature to create an on-the-fly playlist of music similar to the song currently playing.
Eventually, the roads opened up and we were able to get the Escape up to highway speeds.
The primary focus of the 2009 Ford Escape Hybrid Limited is economy, and it seems Ford's engineers made some sacrifices in the name of reaching a high mpg mark. This is in addition to the compromises inherent in the Escape's aging design. While mostly masked at slow city speeds, these flaws seem to amplify on the freeway.
Cruising at 65 mph, the Escape Hybrid Limited exhibits a great deal of road and wind noise, no doubt caused by the Escape's boxy shape, reduced sound insulation, and low-rolling resistance tires. The continuously variable transmission, which seemed so docile and silent at low speeds, restlessly hunts around for the right engine speed. We're sure this goes a long way toward the Escape Hybrid's great highway fuel economy, but the constant audible changes in engine speed--and as a result, engine noise--made us feel nervous and annoyed.
In the cabin
The heart and soul of the Ford cabin tech experience is the Sync technology suite, which lets users access functions of the audio and, if equipped, navigation systems with simple verbal commands.
However, Sync isn't merely a voice command system. Connect an iPod or portable storage device to the USB port and Sync scans and learns all of the music on the device. The time it takes to scan the library can vary, ranging from a few seconds for a USB drive with a few hundred megabytes of music, to several minutes for a hard-drive-based iPod. With the scanning completed, we were able to speak commands, such as "Play artist, James Brown," to jump to a specific artist, album, genre, or song in our library.
Digital-audio sources include the aforementioned USB port, a six-disc CD/DVD player with MP3-decoding capability, an internal 10GB hard-drive for ripping music from CDs, and A2DP Bluetooth audio streaming. The Bluetooth streaming only features basic controls for Play/Pause/Skip, but that's a shortcoming of the protocol, not the Sync system. Rounding out the audio sources are the analog auxiliary input and AM/FM/satellite radio.
Audio quality from the self-proclaimed seven-speaker "Ford Audiophile" system was interesting. Mid- and high-range sounds are lifted up and away from the dash by the system's blend of audio processing. The effect creates a tall, broad soundstage that we came to appreciate. However, the effect was particularly apparent and slightly off-putting with human voices, such as when listening to talk radio. The system sounded better than most seven-speaker systems we've tested, with clear sound and tight bass at all but the highest volume levels. While we feel that "Audiophile" is a slightly ambitious moniker for the system, we're sure most listeners won't be disappointed.
Every command isn't accessible by voice, so users will have to make use of the touch screen. Fortunately, the LCD is a high-resolution unit with crisp graphics and a responsive touch interface. Here you'll find the beautifully rendered maps of the GPS navigation system. Traffic data, weather forecasts, fuel prices, and other useful information are beamed into the vehicle via Sirius Travel Link. Point of interest searches, data access, and destination entry can all be controlled with the voice command system, a useful feature when you need to find a gas station while you're hustling down the freeway.