The Good: Smooth, quick acceleration; solid gas mileage; 110-volt AC outlet option; excellent visibility. The Bad: Expensive; small navigation screen; low-quality stereo; no digital radio or DVD options; loud. The Bottom Line: Ford's 2005 Escape Hybrid, the first hybrid SUV, drives off with a winning combo of power and good fuel economy, but be prepared to pay a premium. 2005 Ford Escape HybridIt was just a matter of time before the benefits of hybrid technology spread from small sedans such as the Toyota Prius and the Honda Civic to larger vehicles, where its impact could be potentially huge. The 2005 Ford Escape Hybrid was the first gas-electric sport utility vehicle to hit the streets, and after spending some time in the driver's seat, we're happy to say it's worth the wait. Not only is the hybrid drivetrain every bit as good as those on its smaller competitors, but this truck offers something the others don't: an optional AC outlet to power anything from a notebook to small appliances. Alas, the Escape also costs a pretty penny, though nothing compared to Lexus's luxury SUV hybrid, the 400h ($49,185 base price), due out at the end of the month. With a base price of $27,400 for the front-wheel-drive model and $29,025 for four-wheel drive, the Escape Hybrid represents a $5,400 premium over the V-6 Escape and costs about $7,000 more than the Prius and Civic hybrids. Our tricked-out test model came to a total of $32,375. Overcome the sticker shock, however, and the Escape is a good option for those who want the room and utility of an SUV and the efficiency of a hybrid. Under the hood, the Ford Escape Hybrid is anything but conventional. The 2.3-liter Atkinson cycle engine churns out 133 horsepower, boosted to 155 horsepower when coupled with the electric motor. The key difference between Atkinson engines and the Otto engines that power the majority of cars on the road is that the Atkinson uses a modified crankshaft to trade some power and torque for improved fuel economy and lowered pollution. For most stop-and-go driving, the Escape taps into the 94-horsepower electric motor powered by a 330-volt battery pack under the cargo bed for power. With a larger electric motor than the Toyota Prius, the Escape remains in electric mode longer, and its gas engine shuts down at every stop. The electric motor consistently fires up at about 30mph and can be gently persuaded to about 45mph before making the electric-to-gas transition. Whenever you start driving uphill or stomp on the accelerator, both power trains kick into gear for lively acceleration. Unlike the Prius's undetectable transition to gas power, there's a slight nudge when the Escape's gas engine hooks up. The Escape's continuously variable transmission always has the right gear ratio for fuel economy and acceleration, and the gas engine and the regenerative braking system charge the battery while you drive. As is the case with the Prius, the Escape has an addictive screen in the middle of the dashboard that shows the power flow as you drive but adds a first-rate fuel economy screen that combines an average for the past 15 minutes with an instantaneous gas mileage bar gauge.A check under the Escape's hood reveals a 2.3-liter Atkinson engine that gets a boost from a 94-horsepower electric motor.The all-wheel-drive Escape is one of the fastest hybrids on the road today, with the ability to accelerate to 60mph in just 8.5 seconds. That's hardly sports car territory, but it's several seconds faster than the Prius or the Honda Civic hybrid (10.3 seconds and 12.1 seconds, respectively) and is on a par with a V-6-powered Escape. Plus, the Escape hybrid can go from 30mph to 50mph in just 3.5 seconds--plenty of midrange torque for freeway on-ramps. However, it's not entirely a smooth ride. The truck registers an annoying 75dBA (decibels adjusted) at 60mph to make for a bit of a noisy drive that's on a par with the Honda Accord Hybrid but much noisier than either the Prius or Civic Hybrid. The MacPherson front strut suspension and a multilink trailing-arm rear suspension hug the road, but the suspension is also stiff enough for plowing over dirt roads. On the downside, the four-wheel disc brakes aren't up to the competition, taking 163 feet to stop from 60mph, nearly 30 feet longer than the Honda Civic Hybrid. Also, the drive-by-wire system leaves the brake pedal feeling stiff and lacking tactile feedback. That said, the Escape weighs 1,000 pounds more than its sedan cousins, so there's more car to stop, and its range is on target with that of other smaller SUVs. We were able to get 30.4 miles out of each gallon--good enough for a 450-mile trip before requiring a fill-up.On the outside, the Escape has the aerodynamics of a brick on wheels, especially compared to the Prius's sleek shape. But remember, the Ford Escape Hybrid is an SUV at heart and, thus, offers several advantages. The truck sits high and offers excellent visibility with a commanding view of the road. For those who might feel claustrophobic in the Prius or the Civic, the Escape boasts a spacious interior to seat five adults comfortably, and there's plenty of space for hauling gear such as two-by-fours and bicycles, particularly when the rear seats are folded down (60\/40 split). Plus, it can tow a half-ton trailer.All controls are within easy reach of the driver, but the surfaces have a cheap, plastic feel, and the switches, particularly those for the hazard lights and radio\/GPS navigation screen, are stiff, often requiring several tries. The steering wheel has buttons for cruise control but no one-touch access to the stereo or other electronics. Also, the three climate-control dials are crude, the air conditioning wanes when the gas engine shuts down, and using max AC keeps the gasoline engine running. On the other hand, we love the power outlet below the climate controls that pumps out 150 watts, turning the Escape into a power generator for camping trips, parties, or blackouts.In addition to the AC outlet, our option package included side and canopy air bags, body cladding, a radio\/CD\/GPS combo, and leather seats. The Escape's navigation screen is integrated into the sound system, which simplifies its use, but the 3.8-inch screen is tiny compared to the 7-inch screen used on the Honda Accord Hybrid. The predictive text entry and the four-way joystick make destination input surprisingly easy. The GPS technology can pinpoint your present location but lacks an emergency screen that shows the closest public safety services--a feature found on the Prius. You can find the nearest Ford dealer in this system, but you'll have to wade through the lengthy points-of-interest database that includes casinos, parks, and dozens of other categories. The navigation system can generate driving directions in seconds and will create routes based on quickest distance and whether you want to use toll roads or freeways, but it lacks the ability to provide a 3D bird's-eye view of the road. Voice directions are read by a pleasant woman's voice who occasionally adds a polite please.Though our test Escape comes with Ford's Audiophile seven-speaker sound system that has a six-CD changer under the passenger's seat, the audio has a harsh, tinny quality and lacks the richness that comes with strong midrange tones. Unfortunately, the only way to get satellite radio is to order the $565 Mach CD player, but it precludes getting the mapping screen. More to the point, the Escape lacks an emergency communications system such as OnStar, it has no DVD player, and you can't plug your MP3 player directly into the system.Safety-wise, the Escape Hybrid has front, as well as optional side and canopy air bags, and achieves four- and five-star crash test ratings. It's covered by a three-year\/36,000-mile general warranty augmented with eight years or 100,000 miles of coverage for the hybrid parts. Ford includes three years of roadside assistance, even if you run out of gas. The Escape Hybrid's Web site has loads of pages on the ins and outs of hybrid technology as well as a link to arrange a test-drive, but it lacks an interactive maintenance application such as those found on Honda and Toyota's Web sites. Ford runs a toll-free hotline for problems, and a technician was immediately available on the line and correctly answered our query.Performance0 to 60mph acceleration 30mph to 50mph lane-pass test Braking distance Noise Fuel economy 2005 Ford Escape Hybrid8.5 seconds3.5 seconds164 feet75dBA30.4mpg2005 Toyota Prius 10.3 seconds7.0 seconds152 feet62dBA45.8mpg2005 Honda Civic Hybrid 12.1 seconds4.9 seconds135 feet75dBA41.6mpgPerformance tests To gauge how well the car performs in real-world situations, we put it through a battery of instrumented tests that simulate actual road maneuvers. With an Escort GT2 Vehicle Performance Computer monitoring the action, we start from a level stopped position, calibrate the device before each run, repeat each test at least three times, and average the results.0 to 60mph From a dead stop, we smoothly press on the accelerator to the floor as we lift off of the brake pedal to accelerate as quickly as possible. While moving, we take note as to whether the car veers right or left or loses traction.30mph to 50mph lane pass To simulate the car's ability to accelerate at speed, we time how long it takes to go from 30mph to 50mph.Braking From a steady speed of at least 65mph, we firmly press on the brake pedal to slow the car down to a complete halt while noting if the car veers either way, the level of ABS shutter, and if there is any fading. The computer starts recording the braking distance at 60mph.Fuel economy Starting with a full tank of 87 octane or greater fuel, we drive on a variety of roads for at least 350 miles and compute the vehicle's gas mileage based on what's consumed and the odometer reading. While duplicating the driving route and conditions is impossible, we strive for a real-world mix of city (frequent stop and go), suburban (midrange speeds with occasional stops), and rural driving (steady highway speeds).Noise Driving at a steady speed of 60mph, we set a RadioShack sound-level meter on the passenger seat. We record an average the measurement over a 15-second period.