The idea behind a hybrid vehicle is to get decent fuel mileage and lower emissions without sacrificing performance or capability.

Sure, you could get great gas mileage from a minimalistic microcar, but who'd want to? European drivers, forced to conserve by economics, rely on subcompacts often powered by small diesel engines. American drivers may want to conserve more and pollute less, but without compromising the amenities.

So you hook up a high-torque electric motor to work in consort with a smallish gasoline engine, using an extraordinarily complex computer system to sort it all out.

The Ford Escape Hybrid was one of the earlier efforts, coming just on the heels of Toyota and Honda hybrids. When it arrived in 2004, it was the first hybrid SUV, later joined by the nearly identical Mercury Mariner Hybrid. There have been rumors of a possible Ford Fusion sedan hybrid on its way.

Still relying on a gasoline/electric hybrid system similar to that used by Toyota, Escape arrives for 2008 with performance and efficiency improvements that make it run more smoothly and quietly. The hybrid gets the same bold body restyling as the regular Escape that makes it look like a downsized Explorer.

Fuel mileage is right up there, as advertised. In normal urban and suburban driving, I actually did better than the EPA figure, getting 37-38 miles per gallon, according to the on-board computer. In one trip from north-central Phoenix to Scottsdale and back, with the air-conditioning turned off, I averaged better than 40 mpg.

Mileage dropped off in highway driving, the wind resistance from Escape's boxy styling no doubt taking a toll. Overall, my mileage averaged about 34 mpg, a good result for a well-equipped SUV that drives nicely and doesn't cost a fortune.

Ford Escape Hybrid

Vehicle type: Five-passenger, four-door hybrid SUV, front-wheel drive.

Engine: 2.3-liter in-line four, 133 horsepower at 6,000 rpm, 124 pound-feet torque at 4,250 rpm; electric-drive motor, 70 kilowatts.

Transmission: Continuously variable.

Wheelbase: 103.1 inches.

Overall length: 174.7 inches.

Curb weight: 3,638 pounds.

EPA rating: 34 city, 30 highway.

Highs: Improved fuel economy, new styling, moderate base price.

Lows: Modest performance, no grab handles, boxy aerodynamics.

PRICING

Base price: $25,075

Price as tested: $31,165

OPTIONS

* Navigation system, with six-CD audio, $2,695.

* Premium package, with leather package, power heated mirrors, 110-volt electrical outlet, roof rack, $1,195.

* Moonroof and satellite radio, $995.

* Side step bars, $345.

* Chrome package, $195.

* Shipping, $665.

THE LOWDOWN

Performance: The constant interchange between gas engine and electric motor is nearly imperceptible, other than a few unusual sounds.

The ability of the engine to shut off while stopped or coasting below 20 mph while the electric motor takes over helps Escape gain mileage in urban driving. This is a benefit shared with Toyota hybrids.

But the air-conditioner operates conventionally via an engine-driven belt, so when the AC is on, the engine has to run constantly even when the Escape is stopped, eliminating the mileage advantage. Toyota gets around this problem with an AC that works electrically.

Drivability: Escape Hybrid gains about 250 pounds over the regular Escape, and it feels heavier. But it handles and accelerates reasonably well, and the electric power steering feels better than most.

Styling: The new look gives Escape a more masculine appearance, with the bright chrome grille looking distinctive.

But Escape's boxy styling loses its luster on the highway. Gas mileage fades as you push this brick through the air.

Interior: Escape's interior looks and feels rich, with designs and textures that seem sturdy as well as attractive. The combination video screen for navigation, audio and hybrid-system monitoring works well without a lot of fuss for changing radio stations or switching functions.

One missing piece: There are no grab handles in the ceiling for passengers.

Bottom line: A likable and competent hybrid SUV offered at a moderate price.