Small SUVs are relatively efficient compared to their larger counterparts, but even in one of these models, topping off the tank can get pricey when gas is well above $3 a gallon — as it is in many places around the country.
What's an SUV shopper to do? If you're not ready to downsize to a small car, the 2008 Ford Escape Hybrid remains one of the most efficient small SUVs available today, with an EPA-estimated 34/30 mpg (city/highway) for the front-wheel-drive model; those numbers reflect the tougher EPA testing procedures that go into effect for 2008 models. These estimates are easily within reach, and aside from some hybrid-specific drivetrain characteristics, the Escape Hybrid drives like a conventional small SUV. Unfortunately, the hybrid system is one of the Escape Hybrid's few bright spots in an otherwise underwhelming package.
Going & Stopping
Like its predecessor, the 2008 Escape Hybrid uses a gas/electric powertrain that consists of a 2.3-liter four-cylinder engine and an electric motor. Total system output is 155 horsepower, and a continuously variable automatic transmission is standard. Even though the Escape Hybrid's powertrain is mechanically the same as the 2007, extensive software modifications were made to the control system so it would run on electric power more often and transition more smoothly between electric and gas/electric modes, according to Ford spokesman Mark Schirmer.
The Escape Hybrid moves in near silence on electric power alone. Ford says the maximum speed the Escape Hybrid can hit this way is about 25 mph. In one instance, I managed to accelerate to 27 mph without the Escape's gas engine starting, but it required very gentle and even pressure on the gas pedal that wouldn't be practical on busy roads.
There's a slight shudder when the gas engine starts, but the engine's noise is more noticeable if you've been traveling awhile on electric power. The Escape Hybrid delivers acceptable acceleration that gives it enough power to get up to highway speeds safely, but it isn't a power-oriented hybrid like the Lexus GS 450h. The upside, of course, is better gas mileage. Once up to highway speeds, a fair amount of wind noise penetrates the cabin.
All-disc antilock brakes are standard, and while they provide linear stopping performance (unlike some hybrids, like the Honda Civic Hybrid), pedal feel is especially poor; depressing it feels like stepping on a sponge.
Ride & Handling
Like the Honda CR-V and Toyota RAV4, the Escape Hybrid has fairly stiff suspension tuning that makes for a firm ride. Body roll is on par with the class — present, but not excessive — and while the Escape Hybrid is maneuverable and handles the highway easily, it doesn't feel as composed at higher speeds as does the Hyundai Santa Fe.
The electric power-steering system provides a high degree of assist, which means it doesn't take much effort to turn the wheel. The SUV steers precisely, with no play in the wheel.
Even though the new cabin styling is an improvement over the outgoing Escape Hybrid's, it still lags behind the CR-V and Santa Fe in terms of material quality and panel fit. Things you'd expect to find, like grab handles, are absent, and other features are poorly executed, like the incredibly cheap-looking sunglass holder near the rearview mirror.
Automatic dual-zone air conditioning is standard, but its display is incorporated into Ford's new dash-top readout screen, which is less than ideal because you have to look first for the temperature or fan speed control knob and then to the screen that's sitting higher up to see the result of your action. A consolidated arrangement would make more sense. I did like the bright blue backlighting of the gauges and controls — it really enhances the appearance of the cabin at night.
Fabric seating surfaces made of recycled plastic and polyester fibers are standard; leather seats are optional. The leather front seats are narrow, but comfort is still OK. Headroom is good, even with the optional moonroof.
The 60/40-split rear bench seat isn't the picture of configurability. In order to fold the seats down to make a longer cargo floor, you first have to flip the bottom cushion forward, remove the head restraints, then fold the backrest down. It's two steps more than the best designs out there, where all you need to do is fold down the backrest. At least once you've taken the time to fold the seats, the cargo floor is completely flat.
The backseat doesn't slide forward and back and its backrests don't recline (more shortcomings), but outer-seat comfort and legroom are decent. Like the first row, headroom is plentiful. The second row lacks a flip-down center armrest, but this deficiency contributes to surprisingly good middle-seat comfort. Thanks to the lack of a floor hump, legroom is also acceptable.
Standard safety features include side-impact airbags for the front seats and side curtain airbags. Ford's AdvanceTrac electronic stability system with Roll Stability Control is standard on conventional Escape SUVs, but it's not offered on the Escape Hybrid due to complexities involved with integrating the technology with the regenerative braking system, Schirmer said.
The Insurance Institute for Highway Safety hadn't tested the Escape Hybrid as of publication, but in National Highway Traffic Safety Administration frontal tests, the SUV received only three stars for driver protection — an unacceptably low score for an updated model. Three stars suggest the driver has a 21 to 35 percent chance of sustaining a serious injury if involved in a head-on collision with a similarly sized vehicle at 35 mph. This score is actually lower than the 2007 Escape Hybrid's four-star rating. Meanwhile, the score for the front passenger has improved to five stars — the highest rating — from four for the 2007 model.
Cargo & Towing
The Escape Hybrid's cargo area is slightly smaller than the regular Escape's, but the differences are minor. The hybrid has 27.8 cubic feet of cargo room; folding the second-row seats brings the total to 66 cubic feet. Unlike the regular Escape, which has a storage well under the cargo floor, there's no such area here because the space is taken by the hybrid's high-voltage battery pack.
Maximum towing capacity when properly equipped is 1,000 pounds. In comparison, the four-cylinder Escape can tow 1,500 pounds, and the V-6 model can handle 3,500 pounds.
Options include a six-CD Audiophile stereo, a 110-volt outlet in the front center console and a navigation system with a 6.5-inch screen. That screen can also show hybrid power flow and fuel economy for the past 15 minutes in a bar graph. Many options are bundled together in the Hybrid Premium Package, including the 110-volt outlet; powered, heated leather front seats; leather-trimmed rear seats; heated side mirrors; a cargo cover; and Ford's Reverse Sensing System.
Escape Hybrid in the Market
Priorities are key when considering the Escape Hybrid; they could easily swing your decision one way or the other. For the Escape Hybrid to be worth your money, you really have to be buying it for its hybrid credentials: fuel savings (especially in the city) and low emissions. Why? When you start to factor in its other, less desirable attributes — like archaic rear-seat folding, spotty interior quality and less than stellar crash-test performance — the hybrid opens the door to competitors from Honda, Toyota and Hyundai. With gas prices surging past $3 a gallon, however, maybe a proven hybrid system is a powerful enough reason to consider the Ford.
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