With gasoline prices climbing again, consumer interest in cars with great fuel economy is rising again as well, and Ford Motor Co. is among the leaders in the miles-per-gallon race for 2010.

That made the company’s vehicles quite popular with consumers during the recent Cash for Clunkers program, causing many Ford dealers temporarily to run out of the most fuel-efficient Ford vehicles – including the best-selling SUV during the program, the compact Ford Escape, whose hybrid model is among the most fuel-efficient SUVs available.

Ford also has joined the hybrid revolution in a big way for 2010, adding gasoline-electric versions of the redesigned 2010 Ford Fusion and Mercury Milan midsize sedans to its lineup, which already includes the Escape and Mercury Mariner compact SUV hybrids.

The sedans come with a new hybrid drive system that gives them quite impressive EPA ratings of 41 mpg in the city and 36 on the highway.

That’s a significant improvement over their key competitor, the Toyota Camry Hybrid, which manages only 33 city/34 highway, and it approaches the 51/48 ratings of the Toyota Prius.

For consumers looking to buy sport utility vehicles, the mpg leader in the compact class is the Escape Hybrid (along with the Mariner Hybrid), whose EPA ratings are now 34 miles per gallon city/31 highway for the front-wheel-drive versions, and 29/27 for all-wheel-drive models.

Even front-drive versions of the gasoline-only Escape are rated as high as 22 city/28 highway, which helped make the Escape the most-popular SUV sold under the clunkers program, which was designed to help people trade in older, less-fuel-efficient vehicles for ones with better mileage.

The Escape and Mariner hybrids have been around since 2005, but they were redesigned just last year, along with their gasoline-only versions.

Fuel economy of the hybrids was increased with the redesign, but so was the mileage of the gasoline-only models, thanks to new engine and transmission combinations that also boosted their power.

The gasoline models rank among the best for fuel economy in the compact SUV segment when equipped with the base four-cylinder engine, six-speed automatic transmission, and front-wheel drive. The highway rating was increased by two mpg by replacing the previous four-speed automatic with the new six-speed. It saves gasoline by providing two additional overdrive gears.

Other fuel-efficiency measures used on the new models – hybrids and gasoline-only — include refined aerodynamics and new low-rolling-resistance tires. Ford says the new 16-inch Michelin Latitude Tour tires have a unique design that uses both reduced weight and a special tread pattern to help reduce fuel consumption.

Many automakers are adding lower-resistance tires to their lineups as part of their overall efforts to boost fuel economy. Less rolling resistance means the engine doesn’t have to work as hard to move the car, which results in less fuel being burned.

Aerodynamic refinements to the redesigned Escape and Mariner included a new front bumper spoiler and rear tire spoilers. The rear spoilers are being used for the first time on a Ford SUV.

The base engine for the gasoline-only Escape models is a new 2.5-liter inline four-cylinder with variable cam timing, another technology designed to increase fuel economy. This feature also enhances performance at the same time.

It replaced the previous model’s 2.3-liter four-cylinder, raising horsepower to 171 from 153. The torque rating is identical to the horsepower.

The new four-cylinder has drive-by-wire electronic throttle control, which replaces the manual connection between the accelerator pedal and engine. The system’s computer controller “calculates the optimal throttle position from a number of sensors,” Ford said. The result is yet another small increase in fuel efficiency.

On gasoline-only models, a new 3.0-liter V-6 engine was added last year, boosting horsepower by 20 percent, to 240, and highway fuel economy by 2 mpg. EPA ratings for two-wheel drive V-6 models are 18 city/26 highway.

A five-speed manual gearbox remains standard. Ratings for the manual model are the same as those of the automatic — 22 city/28 highway.

The hybrids come with a 153-horsepower Atkinson cycle 2.5-liter four-cylinder engine coupled with a 94-horsepower electric motor, giving the vehicle the feel of V-6 power but with fuel economy much better than that of a four-cylinder gasoline-only model.

A continuously variable automatic transmission is standard on the hybrid; no manual is offered, nor is the six-speed automatic. That’s because the CVT is necessary to integrate the hybrid’s electric power into the mix with the special 2.5-liter four-cylinder Atkinson cycle engine used only on the hybrid.

My tester had plenty of zip for freeway merges and passing, even with the vehicle loaded with kids and stuff.

The hybrid is able to run up to 35 mph on their electric motors; the previous generation model was designed to switch to the gasoline engine at 25 mph.

Ride and handling are similar to those of the gasoline-only Escape, on par with that of others in this class, such as the Toyota RAV4 and Honda CR-V. The Escape is very quiet at highway speeds, though – more so than competitors I have tested.

The redesigned Escape and Mariner also got Ford’s new capless refueling system, which eliminates the traditional screw-on fuel-tank cap. In its place is a spring-loaded built-in flap that pushes out of the way when the pump nozzle is inserted. This is designed to help reduce vapor loss at the pump, which both saves gasoline and reduces vapor emissions into the atmosphere, at least in theory.

For 2010, five new optional features have been added to the Escape (and Mariner): integrated blind-spot mirrors, a programmable key, a rearview-camera system, and Ford’s new Active Park Assist. This system will guide the vehicle into a parallel parking space while the driver watches.

The newest Escape also is one of the first Ford vehicles with the latest generation of the hands-free SYNC audio system, which now has audible traffic and directions information that is voice controlled.

Both the Escape and Mariner have seating for up to five; no third row is offered. But even adults can sit comfortably in the back seat, although as with most vehicles, it’s ore comfortable for two than three.

Standard on all models are antilock brakes and electronic stability control. The stability control also includes Ford’s Roll Stability Control system, which uses gyroscopic sensors to help reduce the likelihood of a rollover.

Electric power steering is standard on all models. Originally developed for the hybrid model, to ensure that the power steering worked even when the gasoline engine wasn’t running, this system replaced the traditional hydraulic power-steering pump.

Chassis upgrades have been made to improve steering response and ride comfort, Ford said.

For this report, I tested the Escape Hybrid Limited model, which was added to the lineup last year (2010 prices: $32,260 plus $725 freight for front drive, and $34,010 for all-wheel drive).

It comes with 16-inch, six-spoke bright aluminum wheels; exterior chrome accents; an audio system with six-disc CD changer; chrome and ebony interior touches; and a luxury package that brings ambient lighting, heated front leather bucket seats, a power sunroof, and retractable cargo cover.

Base prices for the 2010 Escape Hybrid are $29,750 (plus freight) for front drive, and $31,500 for all-wheel drive.

That’s quite a premium over the starting prices of the gasoline-only Escape models, however. They begin at $20,515 for 2010 for the four-cylinder manual front-drive version, $21,725 for the base automatic model, and $22,265 for the cheapest all-wheel-drive. V-6 models start at $24,540 (this engine adds $1,000 to the cost of the midlevel XLT version). The manual gearbox is not available on V-6 or all-wheel-drive models; it’s restricted to the base XLS four-cylinder.

Our tester was the Limited all-wheel-drive hybrid model, and it came with just one option – the navigation/premium audio system ($2,395). The audio system with this upgrade has 320 watts, a 40-gigabyte hard drive to store music and the nav-system’s database, and a subwoofer.

Total sticker on our vehicle, with freight and the nav/audio upgrade, was $37,130. The big question for many consumers would be whether the extra fuel economy would be worth paying this much for a hybrid model.

A similarly equipped V-6 gasoline version would cost $31,535 (with freight and the nav/audio upgrade), and the four-cylinder model would be $30,535.

Base prices of the Mariner models range from $23,035 (plus $725 freight) to $26,855 for gasoline versions, and $29,995 to $31,745 for the hybrids.

The automotive columns of G. Chambers Williams III have appeared regularly in the Star-Telegram since 1994. Contact him at 210-250-3236;

The package: Compact, five-passenger, four-door, four-cylinder gasoline/electric powered, front- or all-wheel-drive, hybrid sport utility vehicle.

Highlights: Redesigned last year, the Escape and its Mercury clone, the Mariner, give Ford Motor Co. two practical hybrid SUVs. This is a roomy and comfortable small-family sport utility with excellent fuel economy afforded by the gasoline-electric hybrid power system.

Negatives: Can get pricey with the new Limited trim and options.

Engine: 2.5-liter Atkinson Cycle inline four-cylinder gasoline engine and separate electric motor.

Transmission: Continuously variable automatic.

Power: 153 HP (gasoline engine); 94 HP (electric motor).

Length: 174.7 inches.

Curb weight: 3,669 pounds (2WD), 3,829 pounds (AWD).

Cargo volume: 29.2 cubic feet (behind rear seat); 66.3 (rear seat folded).

Towing capacity: 1,000 pounds.

Electronic stability control: Standard.

Side air bags: Standard front seat-mounted, and side-curtain for both rows.

Fuel capacity/type: 15.1 gallons/unleaded regular.

EPA fuel economy: 34 city/31 highway (2WD); 29/27 (AWD).

Base prices: $29,750-$34,010 plus $725 freight.

Price as tested: $37,130 (AWD, including freight and options).

On the Road rating: 8.5 (of a possible 10).

Prices shown are manufacturer’s suggested retail; actual selling price may vary.

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