06/29/04 — It’s job well done, but is Escape hybrid for you?

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It’s job well done, but is Escape hybrid for you?

Ford Escape hybrid (2005)

Production of Ford’s long-awaited Escape hybrid sport utility vehicle will start next month and should reach East and West coast dealers late this summer or early this fall.

It will make the Escape the first hybrid SUV on the U.S. market.

Ford Escape hhybrid, 2005

Lexus will start production on a luxury sport utility, a version of the RX330, later this fall.

The Escape is the best selling compact sport utility in America and a small percentage, about 20,000, will be hybrids.

A hybrid vehicle is one with a small gas engine and an electric motor to provide auxiliary power. The batteries operating the electric motor are recharged through regenerative braking, which converts the electric motor into a generator to help refill the battery pack, and by a recharging system powered by the gas engine. Hybrid batteries do not need to be plugged in to a house current to be recharged.

Ford officials say the hybrid Escape has the same performance as the Escape V-6, but with about 50 percent better gas mileage and much less tailpipe emissions.

We had an opportunity to test the hybrid on city streets in the Los Angeles area and on dirt paths on a ranch in the hills east of Los Angeles.

The Escape, for all practical purposes, lives up to the hype on road and off.

We were impressed.

The bottom line is that the driving experience is virtually the same except at stops. When the hybrid comes to a stop, the gas engine cuts off.

This is one reason the hybrid is at its best in stop-and-go traffic. If the gas engine is not running, precious fuel is not being expended.

Because of some initial favorable reviews from auto writers and the now-famous “Manhattan on a Tank of Gas” experiment, Ford’s Web site has been bombarded with quires by people interested in the SUV that can realize over 30 miles to the gallon.

During the first week in April, the hybrid was driven in Manhattan until the tank was empty to determine how many miles the Escape could go in real-world traffic on a tank of gas.

The driving test lasted 37 hours over 576 miles through all types of traffic congestion including morning and evening rush hours. The Escape averaged 38 miles per gallon.

“This is phenomenal! We beat our own best estimates,” said Mary Ann Wright, director of Hybrid Vehicle Programs for Ford.

The test began on Monday morning, April 5, and ended on Tuesday evening, April 6.

Demand seems so high that Ford is now trying to figure out a way to raise its first-year production goals even before the first vehicle has hit the ground.

#But Ford is facing a problem that may have customers cooling their heels — there is only one battery supplier, Sanyo Electric Co., and that supplier may not be able to produce the additional batteries necessary to increase production.

In our view, buyers should ask several questions before slapping down the long green. Will the hybrid’s extra cost be made up in savings at the gas pump? Is this new and somewhat unproven technology worth the risk to save a few dollars over a three-to-five year period?

Ford has indicated that the hybrid will carry about a $3,000 premium over a comparably equipped V-6 model.

So let’s do some figuring.

First let’s assume the hybrid saves a solid 10 miles per gallon in all types of driving. Further let’s assume gas stays at about $2 a gallon for unleaded regular.

At 15,000 miles a year, the standard V-6 Escape will use 750 gallons based on 20 miles to the gallon at a cost of $1,500. The hybrid, based on 30 miles to the gallon, will use 500 gallons at a cost of $1,000. With the savings of $500 a year it will take six years to recover the extra cost.

If you purchase the Escape before the end of year, however, the government will allow a $1,500 tax deduction. That’s worth another $420 if you are in the 28 percent tax bracket. That would reduce the break-even point to about five years.

Of course the fewer miles you drive each year, the longer it will take to break even.

Ford may decide to keep the price premium lower, making the hybrid more appealing.

And the hybrid would really look inviting if there was a gas shortage such as occurred in the early ’70s.

Another question that many prospective buyers are asking is how long will the 330-volt battery pack last and what is the cost of replacement. Ford will put at least a 100,000 mile warranty on the electric components, including the batteries.

We don’t have a price on a battery pack replacement, but figure several thousand dollars measured by the cost of battery replacements in other hybrid vehicles such as the Toyota Prius and Honda Civic. That cost should go down over time.

All this being said, the Escape is one of the best handling, solidly built and roomy small sport utilities on the road. Nothing changes with the hybrid. The only difference is the small amount of space the battery pack takes situated under the floor of the rear storage compartment.

Performance comes from a a 133-horsepower 4-cylinder gas engine and a 94-horsepower electric motor. The problem is they won’t produce maximum horsepower simultaneously. The maximum horsepower has been listed at 155, 45 less than the V-6.

But by the seat of our pants perception, there’s not that much difference between the V-6 and the hybrid setup in everyday driving.

Ford has done a remarkable job building a sport utility with the ability to get as much as 50 percent better gas mileage while emitting less pollution.

Its success will be determined by automobile-buying public.

By Jim Meachen
Published in Car Reviews on June 29, 2004 2:44 PM