Because Ford is a company known for its truck sales, it seems only fitting that its first gas-electric hybrid vehicle is the Escape SUV.

The Escape Hybrid is the first full hybrid SUV manufactured in America, and it's available in front-wheel and all-wheel drive. The Environmental Protection Agency rates it at 33 miles per gallon in the city and 29 on the highway, figures that are about 75 percent better than for a standard V-6 Escape.

Prices start at $26,380 for front-wheel drive and $28,005 for all-wheel drive, which is the model I drove. The all-wheel drive system is an on-demand design that drives the rear wheels only when the fronts begin to slip. It has no manual control and no extra-low gear for off-road use.

I averaged about 28.7 mpg in a week of mixed city and freeway driving. I drove normally without trying to maximize fuel mileage.

The Escape Hybrid is built at Ford's assembly plant in Claycomo. It will not be built in high volumes, which could frustrate buyers who want one.

The hybrid combines a 2.3-liter, Atkinson-cycle four-cylinder gasoline engine with a 70-kilowatt permanent-magnet traction electric motor, regenerative braking and a 330-volt battery pack. This gas engine and electric motor provide performance on par with a V-6. The hybrid never has to be plugged in. Its batteries are recharged by the engine, by the electric motor and by heat recovered as energy during braking.

The battery pack is located under the Escape's cargo floor and doesn't materially reduce the cargo capacity. It contains 250 small batteries roughly the size of D cells mounted in series. The pack is designed to last for the life of the vehicle, or about 150,000 miles.

Mary Ann Wright, Ford's director of Sustainable Mobility Programs, said the Escape Hybrid really "wants" to be an electric vehicle, but the gasoline engine adds power for acceleration, charges the batteries and powers the air conditioning.

The Escape is called a full hybrid because it can move solely via electric motor up to 25 miles per hour. At rest, the gasoline engine stops. It restarts in milliseconds when you touch the throttle. From a stop, the electric motor is the initial source of propulsion if you apply the throttle gently. The electric motor is built into the CVT, or continuously variable transmission. The CVT is a stepless automatic that doesn't shift but changes gear ratios electronically.

If you mash the throttle for maximum acceleration, power comes from both the gasoline engine and electric motor. On the highway, the gasoline engine is the primary source of power, which is why the Escape gets worse mileage on the highway than in town.

Conceptually, the Escape Hybrid operates much like the Toyota Prius. Wright said Ford's parts and execution are unique. She said that of the 350 patents offered by Toyota, Ford licensed just 21 of them, mainly to avoid unintentionally infringing on intellectual property rights.

Ford's approach to the gas-electric hybrid system is unique, she said, and her team developed all of the software, or "intelligence," to manage the complicated flow of power from engine to motor to brakes to battery. The software and computerized controllers that make everything work effectively are the key to a hybrid.

Visually, the hybrid is similar to other 2005 Escapes except for its small hybrid badges. The test vehicle was equipped with an LCD screen that shows readouts for the hybrid power system, audio system and navigation map. It's interesting to keep track of fuel use, and the screen also gives a pictorial representation of how the power is flowing at any instant.

I drove an all-wheel-drive model in a variety of situations, from stop-and-go traffic and freeways to off-road trails. Acceleration was certainly on par with other vehicles, and the Escape Hybrid cruised effortlessly at 70 mph.

The gasoline engine drives the air conditioning compressor, so switching on the defroster means the gasoline engine runs all the time. That degrades mileage slightly. In the summer, the air conditioner doesn't always sustain a constant temperature because the compressor stops when the gasoline engine quits at stops. Switching to max A/C keeps the engine running all the time for maximum air conditioning.

The Escape has always had sporty, responsive handling, and that hasn't changed with the new powerplant. Low-rolling-resistance tires not only improve fuel mileage but also have excellent grip on the pavement.

The hybrid's lack of engine braking requires heavier brake use, but since the brakes are regenerative, using them more charges the battery more. Regenerative braking works by spinning the electric motor backward, turning it into a generator, when the brakes are applied. Ford said it expects the brake wear to be lower than normal. Service intervals for oil change and brake inspection have been extended to 10,000 miles.

The only complaint I have with the Escape is that folding the back seat flat requires pivoting the seat bottom forward and then removing the headrests. Once the headrests are off, they either slide around the cargo space or get left at home.


The test car's base price was $28,005. Options included side airbags, painted side body cladding, the navigation and fuel readout system, leather seats, 110-volt power outlet and cargo cover. The sticker price was $32,450.


Three years or 36,000 miles.