November 9, 2008
Why would President-elect Barack Obama trade in his sporty and luxurious, Hemi-powered Chrysler 300C on a 4-cylinder and battery Ford Escape hybrid compact SUV?
Why would a liberal go conservative?
To learn the practical, if not political, motivation, we slipped behind the wheel of a 2009 Escape Limited hybrid with on-demand all-wheel-drive.
The numbers on the window sticker tell the story: 29 m.p.g. city / 27 highway from an AWD sport-utility vehicle that can travel off-road or stay on-road when the snow's there too.
The magic 30 m.p.g. city rating would be more attractive. With two-wheel-drive, Escape hybrid leaps to 34 m.p.g. city / 31 highway, ideal for those in Florida and southern California.
The Escape hybrid teams a 2.5-liter, 153-horsepower 4-cylinder—an upgrade from last year's 2.3-liter, 133-h.p. 4—with nickel-metal hydride battery pack and a continuously variable automatic transmission. This gives the 2.5 a bit more off-the-line vitality, though not quite enough, and it still has too much noise.
Batteries get the vehicle started and keep it moving up to 40 m.p.h., Ford says, before the gas engine kicks in. There are exceptions, of course. The gas engine gets things going on cold mornings when batteries tend to hit the snooze button. And to hit 40 m.p.h. in battery mode you have to tap the gas pedal with a toe—preferably the little one—not your foot.
Best we got with batteries was 28 m.p.h. before the gas engine kicked on, and we didn't need the power to pass or merge; we had simply gone far enough that the battery pack needed more juice. Escape doesn't plug in; it recharges on the fly.
As with all gas/electrics, Escape sports hybrid badges on its body panels to let others in on your preference for green, but in the cabin conservation is on a need-to-know basis. And the driver apparently doesn't.
Push the "i" button on the tiny navi screen in the dash, and schematics show when the gas engine, battery pack or both are working or at rest rather than wasting fuel at the light. You also get an instant mileage reading and an average of the last 15 minutes.
The system revealed that on a 60-mile jaunt with a good mix of stop-and-go city and speed-limit-and-beyond highway driving we averaged 34 m.p.g., far better than the government rating, though without the fuel-consuming AWD system engaged. No snow, so no practical way to determine m.p.g. with AWD.
It's nice to know when in battery or gas, but the tendency is to focus on the screen rather than the road to see that passing, merging and climbing sends the gauge below 20 m.p.g., while tiptoeing, coasting and flat surfaces push the needle to the 60 m.p.g. ceiling.
We'd prefer a large gauge atop the dash that lets everyone know when in battery and when not and mileage at the moment.
On top of the hybrid system, Ford made a major safety upgrade to Escape. Traction control had been offered to minimize slipping when starting from a light on snow or ice. The hybrid adds stability control as standard to help the driver maintain maximum control in turns and corners by minimizing oversteer or understeer. Four-wheel anti-lock brakes and side-curtain air bags complement the package.
Besides hitting 30 m.p.g. in the city and enlarging the hybrid-saves-gas display, we hope the next generation has a slightly wider and longer cabin so occupants don't feel like they're driving around in their the cubicle from work.
And with the Flex and Edge crossovers boasting such dramatic styling, Escape deserves something other than plain vanilla.
On-demand AWD means all-season motoring, though there's no "low" for heavy-duty off-roading.
Nice touches include a 110-volt, 150-watt console power outlet for a computer; time/date/temp/direction readings in the dash top; capless fuel-filler nozzle; cell-phone/iPod holders in the center console; cargo hold access through the rear window or lift-open tailgate; and rear seats that fold flat, providing you remove headrests.
Escape Limited AWD hybrid starts at $32,385 (XLT 2WD $28,305, XLT AWD $30,055) and qualifies for a $1,950 alt-fuel vehicle tax credit. It comes loaded with the power goodies, including moonroof, plus Sync, the system that turns it into a voice-activated rolling sound system. Navi is a $2,395 option.
Ford adds its first hybrid sedans—Ford Fusion/Mercury Milan—early next year after they bow this month at the Los Angeles Auto Show.
Read Jim Mateja Sunday in Rides. Contact him at email@example.com.
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