Hybrid SUVs are still pretty rare. "Full" hybrids that can actually be driven on pure battery power alone - versus "mild" hybrids that just shut off the gas engine when the vehicle isn't moving - are rarer still.
The Ford Escape hybrid is one of them. It's also substantially revised for the '08 model run.
Better battery breeding
The Escape Hybrid gets some notable functional tweaks this year, and the tweaks make its gas-electric drivetrain run more efficiently. The biggest change comes with revised software that governs the operation of the gas-electric powertrain. With the new programming, the transition from all-battery operation to gas-electric operation is smoother than before. The previous Escape hybrid was not terrible in this respect, but the '08 model is noticeably better because you hardly notice the hybrid powertrain at all. Steering is now electric-assist, too, eliminating both the noise and the efficiency losses of an engine-driven hydraulic power steering pump.
Together, the Escape hybrid's 2.3-liter gas engine (133 horsepower) and 70-kilowatt AC electric motor and 330-volt battery pack deliver power and performance comparable to the gas-only V-6 Escape in every area except max tow ratings. Here, the hybrid's only good for 1000 pounds versus up to 3500 pounds for the V-6 gas version.
At the time of this writing, official EPA figures for the '08 Escape hybrid were not available, but Ford claims mid-high 30s in city driving and high 20s-low 30s on the highway. For comparison, the V-6 Escape (2007 model) with front-drive is rated by the EPA at 20 mpg city, 24 mpg on the highway. With the added weight of the optional all-wheel-drive system, the figures drop to 19 mpg city, 23 mpg on the highway. So the hybrid Escape spots the V-6 Escape about 10 mpg, both ways.
In addition to the new programming in the powertrain, the '08 Escape gets thicker carpeting, an acoustically laminated windshield, and recessed channels molded into the roof to improve airflow over the vehicle at speed and further quiet things down. Ford claims a 12-percent reduction in cabin noise at 80 mph, and a 20-percent reduction in high-velocity crosswinds compared with the '07 Escape.
The most noticeable changes to the Escape and the Escape Hybrid are outside. Both the standard Escape and the Hybrid model get an exterior and interior facelift that toughen its face and clean up the cabin.
The front end has been completely redone. It's now very Expedition-like, with a larger and chrome-plated grille/bumper section replacing the body-colored molded plastic treatment used previously. The bumper's center section extends down and underneath the front end, giving the appearance of an integrated skid plate. Just above the bumper, the hood's lip rises almost vertically for an inch or so, then cuts back at an almost 90-degree angle. Larger headlamp assemblies with integrated turn and parking signals, projector-style fog lamps cut into the lower bumper, and a black-out treatment for the B-pillar complete the manly makeover on the outside.
Inside, there's a new dash layout that's similarly squared-off, with a more substantial looking center stack off to the right that houses an information center/LCD screen on top and audio/ optional GPS screen down below that. Between the seats, there's a much more useful "deep well," multi-tiered center console with removable storage trays and combo cupholders.
All gauges and controls get "ice blue" LED-style backlighting, while the interior fabrics are made from recycled "post-industrial materials" that Ford says helps to conserve 600,000 gallons of water and seven million kilowatts of electricity that would otherwise have been used to produce seat covers from "virgin" materials.
The cosmetic re-do of the exterior and interior are hard to fault. The '07 Escape was a little on the vanilla side. By giving the '08 version a shot of testosterone Ford has made the new Escape more distinctive, not only relative to other Fords - but also relative to several immediate competitors. That can't hurt.
Worth the price?
But are the improvements - and the hybrid powertrain itself - worth the approximately $3000 price difference between the least expensive version of the '08 Escape hybrid ($25,075 with front-drive) and the least expensive version of the gas-burning, V-6 Escape ($21,880 for the XLT front-drive)?
The answer depends on how much driving you do annually, how long you plan to keep the vehicle and ultimately, what the per-gallon cost of gas will be over that time period. Maybe you'll save some green; then again, maybe not. If gas prices float to $4 or $5 per, it could be the smartest thing you've done since ditching that iffy ARM mortgage for a sweet deal on a fixed interest rate, 30-year note. On the other hand, if gas prices stay around $2.25 or so for the next five years, you probably won't save a lot of cash - unless you drive more than 12,000 miles annually.
Regardless, you will definitely have the satisfaction of driving a "green" vehicle that not only uses less fuel, it pollutes a lot less, too. Full hybrids like the Escape produce just fractionally more emissions overall than a "zero emissions" electric car - and that's one aspect of performance a conventional, gas-only vehicle can't match.
That the whole package is both reasonably priced and well-equipped should bode well for the '08 Escape - and for Ford.
2008 Ford Escape Hybrid
Base price: $25,075 (front-drive); price as tested, $29,160
Engine: 2.3-liter in-line four,133 hp/124 lb-ft and 70-kW electric motor/330-volt battery pack
Transmission: CVT, front- or all-wheel drive
Length x width x height: 174.7 x 71.1 x 68 in
Wheelbase: 103.1 in
Curb weight: 3638 lb
Fuel economy (EPA city/hwy): TBA
Safety equipment: Dual front side and curtain air bags; anti-lock brakes with traction and stability control
Major standard features: Hybrid specific gauge package and interior, exterior trim; digital info center; dual-zone climate control; six-way power driver's seat; power windows/mirrors/locks; cruise control; AM/FM/CD/MP3 player
Warranty: Three years/36,000 miles; eight years/100,000 miles on hybrid components