For 2005, Ford’s Escape compact SUV undergoes several changes: a freshening-up both inside and out, a new and bigger four-cylinder, an improved six-cylinder, a new fully-automatic four-wheel-drive system, and improved occupant safety.

But the biggest news is the addition of a gasoline-electric hybrid version, which Ford claims is the world’s cleanest and most fuel-efficient SUV.

The Escape is also sold at Mazda as the Tribute, although that SUV is gasoline-only; no hybrid is available.

The gasoline-only Escape is offered in several variations. The XLS is four-cylinder and with a five-speed manual it’s front-wheel-drive only (it’s the only model that comes with a manual). With an automatic, it can be ordered as FWD or 4WD. The 4WD drive is an on-demand system; it’s FWD under normal conditions, but when it senses slippage, it transfers up to 99 per cent of torque to the rear wheels.

The mid-line XLT is a six-cylinder and is FWD or 4WD; the top-line, six-cylinder Limited is 4WD only.

Even in base form, the Escape is well-equipped, offering ABS, power locks with keyless entry, power mirrors, power windows, variable intermittent wipers, CD player and rear folding 60/40 seats.

The Hybrid comes in a single trim line and uses a continuously variable transmission (CVT). It can be optioned with the 4WD system. It comes with all the expected convenience items, including power windows, locks and mirrors, 16-inch wheels, roof rack, air conditioning and a six-way driver’s seat.

It’s a “full hybrid”, which means that its electric motor teams with a four-cylinder gasoline engine for higher performance; it has an engine-stop, which shuts the gasoline engine off when it’s not needed (such as when idling at a light); it has regenerative braking to recover and store energy that would otherwise be lost as heat; and under certain situations, it will move under its battery power alone.

The system works without any input from the driver, and doesn’t require the vehicle to be plugged in. Although its horsepower and torque ratings are low on paper, its acceleration is similar to that of the V6, as the gasoline and electric motors run together. The fuel savings are highest when the vehicle’s used in-town, and its stop-feature and battery power eliminate gas wasted when sitting in traffic (it actually gets better mileage in the city than on the highway). But at $10,200 over the conventional four-cylinder, it’ll take a lot of miles before the fuel savings surpass the price tag.

The gasoline-powered four-cylinder Escape is more powerful than the previous four cylinder, but for performance-for-the-buck, the smooth-running V6 is the best choice. Although it handles well thanks to suspension improvements, the Escape’s interior and fit-and-finish fall short of most comparable Japanese compact SUVs. An optional Safety Canopy System with rollover protection keeps the curtain air bags inflated for an extended period in the event of a rollover, to enhance head protection.

Ford of Canada reports that PEI, Ontario and British Columbia offer rebates on the Hybrid. PEI rebates the provincial sales tax to a maximum of $3,000; Ontario rebates the Ontario retail sales tax to a maximum of $1,000, plus full reimbursement of the $75 tax for fuel conversation; and British Columbia rebates 30 per cent of the General Social Service Tax, to a maximum of $1,000.

The Escape is built in Kansas City, Missouri and Avon Lake, Ohio.

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