Hybrids With Plenty Of Pep

The new Ford SUV and Honda sedan deliver both comfort and performance

The first Gas-Electric hybrid cars were odd-looking vehicles that advanced the frontiers of auto technology but offered little in the way of horsepower, passenger space, or cargo room. On the other hand, the two newest entries, versions of the popular Ford (F ) Escape sport-utility vehicle (BW -- Oct. 18) and Honda (HMC ) Accord sedan, have room, pep, versatility -- and impressive mileage. Like all hybrids, their batteries recharge by recapturing energy from braking and cruising on highways. You never have to plug them in.

Ford Motor's first hybrid, the compact Escape SUV, aims to show you can have it all. This cute-ute now arriving in showrooms proves remarkably capable on steep, rocky dirt trails, although the optional all-wheel-drive is more likely to come in handy on snowy or slippery roads. It can easily carry five passengers, with plenty of room for gear. And it gets 33.3 miles per gallon -- 50% better than the regular Escape and 25% more than the most fuel-efficient gas-driven SUV, the smaller Toyota (TM ) RAV-4 at 26.7 mpg.

Like most hybrids, the Escape starts up silently. You have to watch the instrument panel to tell if the motor is running. The SUV can run up to 25 miles an hour on electric before the gas engine kicks in. Like other hybrids, the Escape's gas engine shuts off at stoplights, creating an eerie hush. During acceleration, the electric motor acts like a turbocharger, helping the 4-cylinder engine crank out almost as much power as a V6. The hybrid Escape gets better mileage in city driving (36 mpg) than on the highway (31 mpg).

The new Accord, which goes on sale Dec. 3, is the first hybrid to mate an electric motor to a V6 gas engine. Honda keeps the Accord fuel efficient at 33 mpg by using "displacement on demand," which shuts down three of the six cylinders when the power isn't needed. But floor the accelerator and the electric motor joins all six cylinders to pump out 255 horsepower -- 15 hp more than the regular V6 Accord. Oh yeah, you also can go 633 miles on a tank of gas.

Unlike full hybrids, the Accord can't propel itself by electric power alone, though it reverts to electric-only when idling. So after starting silently, the gas engine comes on when you hit the accelerator. This type of hybrid gets better mileage on the highway (37 mpg for the Accord) than in city driving (30 mpg).

Deciding among these hybrids depends on whether you want off-road ability or more horsepower, and whether you do lots of stop-and-go commuting or spend more time at highway speeds. Both companies guarantee their batteries for 100,000 miles, or 8 years at Ford and 10 at Honda -- important because replacing one could cost several thousand dollars.

The hybrid Escape starts at $26,970, and the hybrid Accord is expected to cost $30,000. That puts the price of both about $3,400 above their gas-only V6 counterparts. Either vehicle might save you about $350 a year at current gas prices -- not enough to offset its price premium for years. But if you want cool technology, with performance and practicality, all in an earth-friendly package, the new breed of hybrids may be for you.

By Kathleen Kerwin

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