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Story and photos by Paul Williams
Los Angeles, California – With gasoline prices soaring, many consumers are torn between shock at the pump, and attachment to their beloved SUVs (now the fastest growing segment in the Canadian market). Even small-car owners are feeling the pinch, and may be delaying the planned purchase of a larger vehicle.
Like a White (or maybe Green) Knight, arriving to save the day, the Ford Escape gasoline-electric Hybrid will make its debut (after a couple of false starts) in showrooms later this year. It promises the fuel economy of a four-cylinder Escape with the launching power and drive characteristics of a V6. The Escape is the most popular compact SUV in Canada, and this version is designed to offer a “no compromise” (as Ford Chairman Bill Ford puts it) solution to what we want and what we need.
Ford estimates fuel consumption of 6.7/8.1 litres/100 km, in city/highway driving, and a typical driving range from its 56.7-litre tank of 800 kilometres. Because of its bias towards fuel economy in city driving, the Escape Hybrid is targeted at “metro-dwelling outdoors enthusiasts.”
“It’s quite possible,” explained Ford of Canada spokesman Saud Abassi, “that someone living in the country who does mostly high-speed highway driving may find the standard four-cylinder Escape will be more suitable. It’s people doing a lot of driving in congested urban environments who will realize the most efficient operation of the hybrid powertrain.”
Under the hood is a similar setup to that found in the Toyota Prius: ie, two powerplants and two sources of propulsion. The Escape Hybrid’s 133-horsepower 2.3-litre, dual overhead camshaft, four-cylinder gasoline engine uses special tuning to assure complete burning of fuel.
The gasoline engine is connected to a 70-kilowatt electric motor (equivalent to 94-horsepower) via an electronic continuously variable transmission (eCVT). The motor is powered with electricity stored in a battery concealed below the floor at the rear of the truck, and the battery is charged with a regenerative braking system that converts heat into electricity.
Ford says that when working together, the engine and motor can provide the acceleration feel of the 200-horsepower V6. This is due to the increased torque, as the two powerplants when mated through the transmission produce 155 net combined horsepower (the reason you don’t simply sum the two horsepower ratings is because their peak power and torque is reached at different engine speeds). The hybrid technology is not heavy, and adds only 91-kilograms to the weight of the standard four-cylinder Escape, according to Mr. Abbasi.
Behind the wheel, the driver can monitor the hybrid system’s operation from an analogue gauge at the left of the instrument cluster that identifies when the battery is charging, and when the electric motor is assisting its gasoline partner. Alternatively, an extra-cost four-centimetre display on the dashboard, which doubles as a navigation system, performs the same function.
Ford executives are obviously proud of their hybrid system, but readily admit it will not convince buyers alone.
“We know that rising gas prices are a concern for everyone, and some want a clean, environmentally responsible vehicle, but the bottom line is consumers don’t want to give up anything,” said Ford VP Marketing, Jim Padilla, at the Escape Hybrid launch in Los Angeles.
To emphasize its real-world driving capabilities (and demonstrate how buyers can, “have it all”), Ford created a demonstration route for auto writers that would challenge the vehicle with stop-and-go peak-hour traffic, combined with drives up steep canyon roads, an off-road course, and fast highway sprints.
In town, you can drive the Escape Hybrid at speeds up to 40-km/h on electric power alone. You know when the vehicle is in electric-only mode because it’s quieter and the tachometer registers zero r.p.m., even though you’re clearly in motion.
At speeds over 40 km/h, or when you require more aggressive acceleration, the gasoline engine imperceptibly starts. You’re never going to run solely on electricity at higher speeds (although you may run on both gasoline and electric), which is why fuel economy is reduced. I should emphasize, though, that fuel economy on the highway is by no means poor.
Driving the Escape Hybrid requires no special skills or knowledge. Because it uses a self-regenerating hybrid system, you never have to plug it in to charge the battery. Once underway you do hear the occasional whistle from the system as it recovers energy for the battery, but it’s not intrusive (and inaudible with the windows closed). Sometimes there is a slight shudder as the gas engine starts and stops. Steering is direct and precise (it, too, is electric) and foregoes the traditional power steering pump, belts and hydraulic operation in favour of sensors at the steering wheel that detect driver inputs and react accordingly.
Other than the hybrid powerplant, the Escape Hybrid is largely the same as any other Escape, which is already refreshed for 2005. The Hybrid version comes in one level of trim (equivalent to the XLT Escape) and has unique five-spoke alloy wheels, white-faced gauges and a handy 110-volt outlet into which you can plug a laptop computer, or similar household-current device. Body cladding comes in bright, polished silver, rather than the darker grey on standard Escapes.
The manufacturer’s suggested retail price is $33,195 (front-wheel drive), and $35,925 (four-wheel drive).
Mr. Abassi is unsure how many Escape Hybrids will be made available to Canada. The company expects to build 20,000 for North America in its first model year, and typically, Canada will sell about 10% of the North American total. However, Mr. Abassi predicts strong demand in the US, especially in California, and suspects the Canadian allotment may initially only be in the hundreds.
“Demand is going to be the indicator,” says Mr. Abassi. “The more we sell, the more we can get. We know price is going to be a major factor here.”
That being said, Ford may be underestimating demand for this interesting and timely vehicle.