Editor's note: This review was written in September 2008 about the 2009 Ford Escape Hybrid. Little of substance has changed with this year's model. To see what's new for 2010, click here, or check out a side-by-side comparison of the two model years.
Small SUVs are relatively efficient compared to their larger counterparts, but even in a model like that, topping off the tank can get pricey when gas is above $4 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 2009 Ford Escape Hybrid remains one of the most efficient small SUVs available today, with an EPA-estimated 34/31 mpg city/highway for the front-wheel-drive model and 29/27 mpg for ones with all-wheel drive. I tested an all-wheel-drive version of the new Limited trim level of the Escape Hybrid and found that the government's estimates are easily within reach. Aside from some hybrid-specific drivetrain characteristics, the Escape Hybrid drives like a conventional small SUV. While Ford has improved the model for 2009, interior quality remains one of the Escape Hybrid's shortcomings.
Compared to some of its small SUV competitors, the Escape Hybrid has maintained a relatively traditional SUV appearance with its upright grille and angular profile, and this should be appealing to those who like the rugged look of an SUV but the better gas mileage of a hybrid. Design cues include large front and rear fender flares, and, on the Limited trim, a chrome grille that flows into the front bumper.
As opposed to GM, which slathers its full-size SUV hybrids with stickers and badges, Ford has shown some restraint in distinguishing the Escape Hybrid from regular Escapes. Badges on the sides and liftgate clue people in that this is a hybrid, but otherwise it looks much like a regular Escape (see a side-by-side comparison with a 2009 Escape).
Going & Stopping
Starting with 2009 models, the Escape Hybrid uses a gas/electric powertrain that consists of a new 2.5-liter four-cylinder engine and an electric motor. It's a refined system that smoothly blends power to propel the SUV. Total system output is 177 horsepower, and a continuously variable automatic transmission is standard.
The Escape Hybrid moves in near silence on electric power alone at low speeds and can even do so when going up a gradual incline. Operating the air conditioning in its regular mode will keep the gas engine on more frequently, but pressing the system's "Econ" button allows you to enjoy air conditioning as well as more electric-only operation than you'd otherwise get.
Whereas the 2008 Escape Hybrid exhibited a slight shudder when its gas engine started, the 2009 Escape Hybrid's engine comes on more smoothly; the main ways to tell it's on are by looking at the tachometer or listening for its quiet drone. Ford says it tried to make this element of the powertrain smoother, and it succeeded.
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, a midsize luxury sedan with a V-6 engine. 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 the 2009 Escape Hybrid gets a new brake-pedal sensor. While the 2008 Escape Hybrid had a very soft brake pedal that felt like you were stepping on a sponge, the 2009 model has a fairly firm pedal. It doesn't offer the natural pedal feel of a good conventional hydraulic braking system, but it's good for a hybrid, and the system is able to stop the SUV quickly when necessary.
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 present but not excessive, which is good for this class. The Escape Hybrid is maneuverable and handles the highway easily.
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.
The new cabin styling that the Escape Hybrid received for the 2008 model year was an improvement over the outgoing model's interior, but it still lagged behind the CR-V and Hyundai Santa Fe in terms of materials quality and panel fit. The interior of the new Limited trim level has an improved appearance thanks to the use of piano-black trim on the dash and center console, but there's still too much hard plastic for a modern car, and there's too much space between trim panels. However, some of the Escape Hybrid's other features may be enough for buyers to overlook these shortcomings.
Limited models come with customizable ambient lighting for the cupholders and other points in the cabin, giving drivers the ability to choose what color they'd like to use to highlight the interior, including blue, purple and orange. Ford's Sync entertainment and communication system is standard, and the Escape Hybrid can have an optional navigation system that has much-improved graphics and new capabilities, like displaying weather maps, gas prices and sports scores.
Automatic dual-zone air conditioning is standard, and its display is incorporated into a dash-top readout screen. I wasn't high on this design when it initially came out because you have to look in two places to operate the system — first for the temperature or fan speed control knobs and then to the screen higher up to see the result of your action. That hasn't changed, but I found myself not having to look for the knobs after using the system a while as I came to know where they were on the dash. A new owner might have a similar adjustment period. I did like the blue backlighting of the controls; it really enhances the appearance of the cabin at night.
Fabric seating surfaces made of recycled plastic and polyester fibers are standard; the Limited model has leather seats. The leather front seats offer good long drive comfort — I wasn't sore in the least after a nearly six-hour drive. They're also heated, but only have an "on" setting, unlike many models that offer more than one temperature. 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 comfort and legroom are decent in the outboard seats. 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.
The Insurance Institute for Highway Safety gave the 2009 Escape its Top Safety Pick award for the SUV's overall scores of Good — the highest rating possible — in its frontal-offset, side-impact and rear crash tests. To be eligible for the designation, the model also has to offer an electronic stability system, and Ford's AdvanceTrac with Roll Stability Control is newly standard for 2009. Additional standard features include side-impact airbags for the front seats and side curtain airbags.
Cargo & Towing
The Escape Hybrid's cargo area is slightly smaller than the regular Escape's, but the difference is minor. The hybrid has 27.8 cubic feet of cargo room; folding the backseat brings the total to 66.1 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 maxes out at 3,500 pounds.
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 and spotty interior quality — the hybrid opens the door to competitors from Honda, Toyota and Hyundai.
Still, the Escape Hybrid's crash-test scores are better than before, and the Limited offers an improved cabin appearance. With gas prices the way they are, a proven hybrid system will definitely be a powerful enough reason for shoppers to consider the Ford.
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