Test Drive: 2006 Ford Escape Hybrid car test drives hybrids greenreviews ford
2006 Ford Escape Hybrid. Click image to enlarge


Review and photos by Jil McIntosh

When the 2000 Honda Insight arrived on the market, the first consumer gasoline/electric hybrid, it didn’t look like anything else on the road. It was small and slippery, with fender skirts and tiny tires, and looked more like a big bullet. Ditto the Toyota Prius, which looks as futuristic as its propulsion system.

But there’s a new wave of hybrids, built not as unique models, but as hybrid versions of existing vehicles. These include the Toyota Highlander Hybrid, Toyota Camry Hybrid, Honda Accord Hybrid, Honda Civic Hybrid, and my tester, the Ford Escape Hybrid. Were it not for the badges, a discreetly-placed battery vent in the rear quarter window and a special gauge, you couldn’t tell it from a regular Escape just by looking.

Unlike its conventional siblings, which come with an inline four-cylinder or V6, the Escape Hybrid exclusively uses a 2.3-litre Duratec four-cylinder engine, but mated to an electric motor with a nickel-metal hydride (NiMH) battery pack, along with a continuously variable transmission (CVT). The system is regenerative, and the vehicle does not have to be plugged in.

It’s considered a “full” hybrid, meaning that it can run on its battery alone. The system automatically switches between electric, gasoline or a combination of the two, and will run on electric power for such low-load conditions as coasting at low speeds or coming to a stop, driving under 40 km/h, or when in reverse. The system also uses an “idle stop”; under most conditions, if you’re not moving, the gasoline engine isn’t running. (The engine will idle in some circumstances, such as when the defroster or maximum air conditioning is on).

Test Drive: 2006 Ford Escape Hybrid car test drives hybrids greenreviews ford
2006 Ford Escape Hybrid. Click image to enlarge

An advantage to the system is that it boosts power beyond the regular capability of the gasoline engine; while the conventional four-cylinder Escape can be listless, the Hybrid provides power and pickup more in line with the V6′s performance.

The system is almost seamless, and once you’ve gotten used to it, you hardly notice that it’s switching, even though it goes back and forth quite often; turn a corner at normal residential speeds, for example, and the battery will take over, with the engine kicking back in once you’ve accelerated past the threshold speed. A slight bump signals that you’re back on gasoline as the engine starts. Starting is handled by the electric motor, rather than a conventional starter.

Test Drive: 2006 Ford Escape Hybrid car test drives hybrids greenreviews ford
2006 Ford Escape Hybrid. Click image to enlarge

Shutting down the engine so often may seem like overkill, but in official Energuide figures, the Hybrid manages city and highway figures of 6.6 and 7.0 L/100 km (43 and 40 mpg Imp), compared to an automatic-equipped four-cylinder Escape at 10.4 and 8.4 (27 and 34 mpg Imp), or a V6 at 11.9 and 8.8 (24 and 32 mpg Imp). You’ll notice that, unlike a gasoline vehicle, the Escape Hybrid gets better mileage in the city, which makes your driving habits key when deciding if it’s a good choice for you. Like any hybrid, the Escape’s fuel savings are highest in stop-and-go traffic, where its idle stop and small engine work in its favour.

Test Drive: 2006 Ford Escape Hybrid car test drives hybrids greenreviews ford
2006 Ford Escape Hybrid. Click image to enlarge

Should you live in a rural area or drive on the highway a lot, as I do, you’re mostly working the gasoline engine, which is why my final figure on a 4WD vehicle was 8.6 L/100 km (33 mpg Imp), compared to a conventional Escape 4WD, which is officially rated at 10.2 L/100 km (28 mpg Imp). My return was still respectable for a small SUV and better than the straight gasoline version, but it makes it much harder to earn back the extra purchase price in fuel savings, even with any tax credits your province may offer; the FWD Hybrid is $8,000 more than an automatic-equipped four-cylinder FWD Escape.

But assuming that the hybrid does work for you, and you’re comfortable with the extra cost, what do you get? In this case, a compact SUV that I’ve always been very partial towards; there are numerous entries in this segment, many of them very worthy, and I rate the Escape among the top ones. It’s a nice size, its square shape makes the most of its cargo area, and it’s comfortable.

Test Drive: 2006 Ford Escape Hybrid car test drives hybrids greenreviews ford
2006 Ford Escape Hybrid. Click image to enlarge

Turn the key and the engine will start, although if you sit long enough, or if it’s recently been running, the idle stop will shut it off again. Reverse is handled by battery power, which is fine under most circumstances, but I occasionally parked it nose-down on a slight incline, and no matter how hard I pressed the throttle, the Escape dawdled back up at an unwavering speed. The owner’s manual says it is limited to 35 km/h in reverse and is electric-only “in most cases”, but I couldn’t get anywhere near that limit, and the gasoline engine would not kick in (I suspect it might in very cold conditions, although I didn’t have the opportunity to find out). In any case, be careful when backing onto busy roads.

The Escape’s CVT feels as close to a conventional transmission as any I’ve driven; there’s very little of the “rubber band” feel to it. But it takes a bit to get used to the brakes, which are regenerative to feed energy back into the battery. My first impression was that they were conventional brakes that had been adjusted too high, as they grab near the top and feel artificial. Despite that, they do a good job of bringing the Escape to a smooth halt.

Test Drive: 2006 Ford Escape Hybrid car test drives hybrids greenreviews ford
2006 Ford Escape Hybrid. Click image to enlarge

The Hybrid’s cluster is pretty much the same as a standard Escape, which means it shares the conventional model’s awful speedometer. Speeds are broken into blocks marked 40, 80, 120, 160 and 200, with large and small lines between them; it needs far more numbers than that, as it’s difficult to look down quickly and figure out if you’re doing 90, 100 or 110 km/h without taking your eyes off the road for too long. Unique to the Hybrid is a small battery gauge that indicates when the system is charging, and when the electric motor is assisting the gasoline engine; the tachometer also includes a green zone that shows when the Escape is running solely on its battery. An optional “power point” 110-volt AC outlet can be added, which the company says can run such things as a television, radio, air pump or electric razor.

Test Drive: 2006 Ford Escape Hybrid car test drives hybrids greenreviews ford
2006 Ford Escape Hybrid. Click image to enlarge

My tester was equipped with an optional navigation radio, which includes a voice-guided navigation system, six-CD changer, fuel economy monitor and energy flow display. That last item is an animation of the Hybrid’s system, with arrows to indicate when power is moving from the battery to the wheels, or engine to battery. Overall, Ford’s controls tend to be big and simple, which I’ve always felt to be one of the company’s strong points: you should not be hurtling down the road at 100 km/h with your attention given to fiddling with tiny buttons or computer screens. But simplicity goes out the window with this complicated optional radio. The “enter” button is difficult to use, the system is not intuitive, and on one trip, the navigation couldn’t recognize

Test Drive: 2006 Ford Escape Hybrid car test drives hybrids greenreviews ford
2006 Ford Escape Hybrid. Click image to enlarge

that I’d arrived at my destination, and kept telling me to make a U-turn to go heaven knows where. It uses DVD discs, which go into the dash, while music CDs fit into a magazine located under the passenger seat; considering that you probably change your music more frequently than your maps, switching that around would make more sense.

The rest of the Hybrid is tried-and-true Escape: the seats are comfortable and visibility is very good. It handles well for a compact SUV, and although its steering is electric-assist, it’s been tuned in quite well, without the overt numbness and artificiality that the Toyota Prius exhibits. Because the NiMH battery is located under the floor and vents through the quarter window, the rear 60/40 seat folds – something you can’t do on the Honda Civic Hybrid, for example, because of the rear-seat vent placement. That opens the cargo area from a length of 85 cm to a flat-floor 150 cm length. (The down side is that you must remove the head restraints first, and the middle one can be a pain to reach.) The liftgate glass also opens separately, so you can toss items in without having to open everything.

Test Drive: 2006 Ford Escape Hybrid car test drives hybrids greenreviews ford
2006 Ford Escape Hybrid. Click image to enlarge

Are hybrids the wave of the future? That’s still open to debate, especially if you factor in everything: they use less fuel, but their batteries contain a chemical soup that must eventually be considered in recycling. They’re safe under normal conditions, but emergency personnel must be trained in correct extrication due to their high voltage. They’re cleaner than diesels, but oil burners can return more kilometres per tank. They work best in urban areas, which does not suit all drivers. And there’s the question of the application: is it “greener” to drive a hybrid SUV, or a fuel-efficient smaller car? At the moment, hybrids are one solution, but not the only one.

Test Drive: 2006 Ford Escape Hybrid car test drives hybrids greenreviews ford
2006 Ford Escape Hybrid. Click image to enlarge

The Escape Hybrid will also soon face competition from the Saturn Vue Green Line, expected later this year; GM hasn’t divulged its price, but don’t be surprised if the company uses a lower bottom line as a major part of its marketing strategy. With price being a large factor in the decision to purchase a hybrid, such a rivalry may well be the beginning of hybrids moving from the realm of the futuristic, to the level of conventionality.


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