Ford Escape Review

Ford Escape Review

It may have taken five years, but someone finally made a hybrid out of something other than a bite-size passenger car. Adding extra economy to economy cars is always deserving of applause, but why not spread the technology to segments starving for it? How about helping out America's transport module of choice, the beloved sport-utility vehicle? Come on, throw a dog a bone.

So Ford tossed one, and the public is biting. The Escape may only be one of six hybrids in 2005 but is only the second to get it right by showing up with a "full" or "parallel" hybrid powertrain, meaning it can be driven by its gas engine, its electric engine, or both simultaneously. No halfway Honda hybrids here, no sir. Call the Escape late, but don't call it unprepared.

You may remember that the Escape first came out as a 2001 model that was identical to the Mazda Tribute aside from having a softer suspension. The first batch of these Mazda 626-based SUVs was recall city and repair rates were shaky, but both points have stabilized. Other good news for all 2005 models include a floor-mounted transmission shifter, slight styling revisions, and Ford's 2.0-liter Zetec 4-cylinder getting shelved to make room for the peppy 2.3-liter 4 from Mazda's 3 and 6 sedans.

Road Test
As with all hybrids, the Escape's main difference is that you often sit at red lights with the engine off, like you're parked. And as with the Prius, you often travel on electric power alone at low speeds until the gas engine takes its 0.4-second moment to fire up and take over. Design differences abound: there's electric power steering (necessary for engine-off driving), regenerative front brakes (the battery's main source of recharging), and a Continuously Variable Transmission. Every command is computer-regulated; floor it in Neutral and nothing happens. Don't be alarmed by the occasional whistle or groan - that's just the generator and regenerative brakes doing their thing.

In fact, don't worry about anything; just get in and drive. Adhering to hybrid commandment #1, driving the Escape involves doing nothing differently or feeling anything that doesn't become second-nature after some seat time. Ford engineered a decent amount of realism into the steering - the wheel self-centers and has some weight to it. The firmness of the brakes is a little random but they feel mostly correct, and are less grabby than either Honda's or Toyota's. The suspension is the same as other Escapes, so ride and handling are the same.

Another shared piece is the 2.3-liter 4-cylinder, which is a relieving break from hybrid tradition of using a deeply downsized engine. However, Ford put this engine on the "Atkinson cycle" - a diet plan that has it inhaling less air and fuel in the name of 4% better efficiency. Horsepower falls from 153 to 133, which the electric motor restores back to 155. However, those two extra horses carry 365 more pounds than a 4-cylinder Escape, making Ford's claim of "V6-like performance" groundless. Why Ford saddled our tester with another 162 pounds from the all-wheel-drive system (it's a passive system that lacks low-range), I don't know. Underpowered as it may be, the smooth-revving engine never feels strained and the transparent transmission makes the most of it.

The fairly early skidding of the P235/70R16 tires can probably be blamed on their high aspect ratio (the middle number) and/or their all-season design. The even more conservative 19.9:1 steering ratio - even slower than a standard Escape's - also makes you wind your arms a lot. Clearly, the Escape Hybrid isn't the best source of typical driving fun.

So who needs typical? Fun is in the brain of the beholder, and the hunt for fuel economy becomes its own reward. Try seeing how far you can get in free mileage mode before waking the engine. It usually happens by 10 MPH but can stretch to 20 or 30 if you feather-foot it. Heck, if you drift downhill and stay under 40, you can glide all the way to the bottom without using a drop of gasoline. How satisfying. And in the daily grind, it's always tempting to top your high MPG score, measured in real-time by the computer. Like Tetris, some games never get old.

The computer can educate as well as entertain. Its two bar graphs - one for instant fuel economy, another for charting the past 15 minutes - teach you the effects of your driving habits. Acceleration dips mileage to about 10 MPG; coasting downhill on any incline surges the reading to "MAX" (it stops counting at 60). MPH kills MPG: speeding it up from 70 to 80 drops mileage from 28.X to 22.X (does that sound right?). There were instances of inconsistency - an 80 MPH cruise had it reading 22.X one day and 26.X on another (same freeway, same weather) - but over several days, it was hard to get the "last 15 minutes" reading to ever budge from the mid- or high-20s. In other words, the Escape's mileage is about as good in the city as it is on the freeway. That I believe.

Freeway driving is naptime for the electric half of the powertrain; all of the savings come from tooling around town. The Escape doesn't make the best cruiser anyway, thanks to excess road and wind noise that give the impression of an SUV that's not screwed together well. (To get rid of the ghostly whir above 40 MPH, remove the roof rack.) And considering the modest handling, the ride could be more controlled. The independent suspension is resilient to most bumps, but the worst ones hit hard and sometimes send you bouncing. Enough of this; just go back to the city where you can enjoy savings, smoothness, and the sounds of silence.

My grand score through 1,127 miles of light-footed, mostly-highway driving: 26 MPG. A good guess for a 4-cylinder Escape would be about 21. Frankly, I expected more, especially from a full hybrid. The all-wheel-drive system weighed down our car to some degree and spending more time in the city might have helped, but it's doubtful any Escape owner would see more than 30 in the long-run. Contrast this with Prius owners, who rarely report less than 40. Range wasn't so special either; the only way to realize Ford's claim of "well over 400 miles" is to ignore the computer, which always dinged at me for a refill at 327 miles or less. Still, 26 MPG has the Escape setting one record: it's the most economical SUV on sale.

Inside & Out
If you want to announce to the world that you're trying to save it, look elsewhere. Aside from subtle Hybrid badges, barely-different wheels (of identical size), and a rear-window vent for the 330-volt battery pack, the hybrid Escape looks like the others. Ford also left the body alone, foregoing the binge dieting measures like aluminum body parts, spoilers, or low-rolling resistance tires practiced by Honda.

Status quo was the interior plan as well. Some of Ford's typical bonehead ergonomics are present: cruise controls that take up more space than they should (and are unlit at night) and climate controls that are both overcomplicated and missing in features. Rocker-style power window switches threaten the necks of young children and the steering wheel doesn't telescope.

Otherwise, it's one of Ford's better interiors. Comfortable, supportive seats (a tad too reclined) team up with foreign car-style door locks, headlights, and wiper controls, the gauges are crisp, the seatbelts adjust for height, and the cubbyholes are roomy. A hybrid bonus is the optional three-pronged power outlet to support any household appliance that can get by on 150 watts. There's also a 12-volt outlet next to it and a cigarette lighter not far away.

In the driver's instrument cluster, the temperature dial got replaced by a needle pointing to whether the battery pack is getting juice or giving it - simple and effective. (There's no gauge for the battery itself.) The tachometer drops to zero to indicate electric operation, while all the other hybrid statistics are contained in the 4-inch display in the radio. Switch to one screen to watch fuel economy, another to watch the dynamics of power flowing between the various components (engine, electric motor, battery pack, wheels).

Secondly, this little screen houses the navigation system. It's not a touch-screen model, so you need to switch between nudging the toggle mouse (think iDrive mini) and pressing side-screen buttons - much less friendly than Honda's approach. The system in our test car was also glitchy and wouldn't let me finish programming a single address.

The third part of this entertainment system is the upgraded 7-speaker "Audiophile" stereo (not MP3 compatible), which sounds so much better than in Ford's other products that you wonder if there's any relation. All three items come together in one $1,850 package.

Air conditioning is sometimes a hybrid sore spot; the Escape's system is belt-driven and therefore reliant on the engine. Leaving it in normal AC mode has the compressor shutting off whenever the engine does; turn the dial to "MAX AC" and the engine will stay on to keep you cool. This isn't as sophisticated as the Prius' electrical air conditioner or the Accord's hybrid unit, but at least there's a choice.

The Escape might set the back seat standard for compact SUVs, at least in terms of space. Room is pretty up there for a 175-inch vehicle, as is being able to fit a flat floor despite all-wheel-drive hardware. Headroom is abundant for all, and those heads can be saved by the new Safety Canopy option (side and side-curtain air bags). With all head restraints removed, the back seats tumble to form a flat 65.5 cubic foot load floor. There's still a decent 27.6 behind the back seat, and it's all hidden from looky-loos by the retractable cargo cover. Lastly, the rear window opens independently of the liftgate for extra convenience.

Other Thoughts
If you ignore the $1,625 4WD system, an Escape Hybrid can be had for $27,445. The highest 2WD 4-cylinder Escape is the $23,150 XLT. These two are almost equal in equipment yet stand at opposite ends of a $4,295 chasm.

It's time for the tell-all question: how long till you get your money back? Typical Escape Hybrid scenario: 12,000 miles / 26 MPG x $2.50 per gallon = $1,154 for gas every year. Regular Escape: 12,000 / 21 x $2.50 = $1,429. Annual savings: $275. $4,295 divided by $275 puts the break-even point 16 years down the road. How does that sound?

We can't forget the $2,000 federal tax deduction that's been extended through the end of 2005. (In 2006 this falls to $500, then gets dropped entirely.) Nor can we forget the battery, which is warranted for 8 years, will konk out who-knows-when, and by then will cost who-knows-what. Gas prices down the road are also anyone's guess. This hybrid vs. non-hybrid debate is shared by every model and seems as much of an emotional decision as a rational one. But if there's any room for rationality here, we have to talk about the concept behind the Escape Hybrid.

Like Honda with its V6-powered Accord Hybrid, Ford added a dose of efficiency to something inherently wasteful. A compact, car-based SUV is still an SUV, and all Escapes punch a big, heavy hole into the air. Stack the Escape up against Ford's cheapest car and check the facts: the Ford Focus wagon also seats five, fits 73.7 cubic feet of cargo (more than the Escape), drinks less gas than the Escape (especially on the freeway), handles and brakes better, and goes just as fast. To add financial insult to injury, a Focus SES wagon with automatic and antilock brakes runs $20,180 - a staggering $7,265 less than the Escape. Isn't that a little like getting beaten up by your little sister?

Last Word
Another accomplished hybrid joins the ranks. The Escape Hybrid is practical, smooth-driving, stands along Toyota near the front of the technological curve, and will amuse its owner for years. Whether it makes a good buy depends on how open-minded you are to the alternatives.

Acceleration 2 - Bad
Transmission 5 - Awesome
Steering/Handling 3 - Okay
Brakes 3 - Okay
Ride Quality 3 - Okay
Noise 2 - Bad
Ergonomics 4 - Good
Front Seat 4 - Good
Back Seats 4 - Good
Trunk 4 - Good
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