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Sneak peek: 2008 Ford Escape Hybrid

Ford let us take one of its preproduction 2008 Ford Escape Hybrids for a couple of days to get an early look at the next major upgrade for this little environmentally-conscious SUV.

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Ford let us take one of its preproduction 2008 Escape Hybrids for a couple of days to get an early look at the next major upgrade for this little environmentally oriented SUV. This new generation of the Escape Hybrid brings its tech up to modern standards and is a big improvement over the 2007 Ford Escape Hybrid. Where the 2007 model had sporty lines, the 2008 upgrade looks much tougher. It has square indentations along the sides and rear bumper, fog lights molded into the front bumper that echo earlier Land Rovers, and high wheel arches. But it also has shiny chrome insets on the tailgate and front bumper that are more stylish than rugged.

The navigation/entertainment module in the dash is the biggest improvement over the 2007 model. The touch-screen LCD is much bigger than with the current model, and although the navigation software is similar to the previous version, it now can read out the names of streets. It's also DVD-based, a huge improvement over the 2007 model. We found it worked quickly and had no problem recalculating when we moved off its suggested route.

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Better yet, the 2008 Escape Hybrid has a six-CD in-dash changer that can read MP3 CDs. It shows ID3 tag information and makes it fairly easy to navigate large music collections. It also has an auxiliary audio input jack, so connecting to an MP3 player is simpler. We counted four speaker grills, one in each door, and a subwoofer in the cargo area. That would make five speakers, unless the door grills hide some paired tweeters and woofers. Either way, the audio quality is good but not the best we've ever heard.

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Ford claims to have made improvements to the Escape's hybrid power train, refining the software so the transition from electric to gasoline power is more seamless. During our test driving, we could still easily tell when the gas engine kicked in. But it's not jarring in any way, and we enjoyed cruising the car through San Francisco traffic. Typically it starts up only under electric power, and the engine doesn't generally kick in until you get over 25mph. For some particularly slow stretches of traffic that we drove, it ran quietly under electric power. The car could benefit from a hill-hold system, as it has a tendency to roll back a bit when on an incline, requiring a quick switch from brake pedal to throttle. The EPA rating for the car is 36mpg city and 31mpg highway. We didn't have it long enough to report our own results, but those figures are definitely believable.