When we sampled the 2006 Ford Escape Hybrid earlier this year, we came away impressed with the small SUV's advanced drivetrain and its tangible efficiency benefits. The premium it commanded over a comparable Escape with an internal combustion engine was also substantial, and ultimately we questioned whether the step up to the hybrid was worth it. Working against the hybrid in the equation was a lack of refinement in both the four-cylinder engine and also the chassis, which groaned disturbingly over rough pavement.
Eight months later, it's the 2007 model year, and while the only running changes to the Escape Hybrid amount to three new exterior color choices, the other elements of the Escape's value equation have shifted more radically. Very recently, gas prices have fallen dramatically to about their levels at the time of our earlier test. But at a national $3.00 average for regular unleaded, as we briefly saw during the summer, an extra 16mpg around town starts sounding pretty good. Factor in the lowered base price of the front-wheel-drive Escape Hybrid for 2007, and things start swinging in its favor.
And whether it's down to perception, or possibly hard miles on the example we saw first, the 2007 we were given felt distinctly more solid than the 2006. Gone were the mysterious low creaks from the rear undercarriage and the intermittent rear-brake squeal. This tester was silent when it should have been, and the experience behind the wheel was enhanced for it. The Escape Hybrid still begs for improvements and additions to its options list, but for 2007 represents better value than at any point in its model run thus far.
Navigation adds a detour
The 2007 Ford Escape Hybrid is carried over from 2006 with no changes inside or out, save for three new shades of paint. Our test car was optioned with the leather comfort group but was otherwise similar to the version reviewed previously. The leather materials are of decent quality and lend a bit of class to the interior, but the faux metallic accents and plastics don't quite measure up. Given the choice, we'd probably save the $595 and stick with the standard cloth seats.
Both Escape Hybrids we've seen have included the optional audiophile sound and navigation system ($1,995), which includes an energy-flow monitor and fuel-consumption display. For the most part, this combination of systems disappoints. The audio output is nothing exceptional, with seven speakers playing from AM/FM radio or a six-CD changer and delivering adequate power but murky separation and no digital signal processing or surround capability. Satellite radio can be had only with the nonnavigation audio system, a hindrance that Ford should work to remedy for its next-generation OEM setup. The same goes for the six-CD changer under the passenger seat--in-dash changers are now the norm elsewhere.
The interface for navigation, audio, and other car systems uses this tiny LCD. And the slot above the LCD is for navigation CDs--audio CDs go under the passenger seat.
Further hampering the effectiveness of the navigation system is the same small LCD. With only four inches (diagonally) of screen space, maps are hard to read, and even the energy-flow display tries to pack too much information into the limited real estate. Destination entry is via a joystick-button working an onscreen keyboard, a method we always find tedious. Voice prompts and turn-by-turn route directions are as expected, and dedicated buttons for Home and Voice Repeat are nice. One editor noted how the in-dash navigation CD whirred audibly each time he pressed a button--not exactly the height of sophistication, and yet another reason this system should be moved out of the dashboard.
One nice feature we don't recall seeing on the 2006 Escape or Mercury Mariner Hybrid was the detour function of the navigation system. Once underway with route guidance active, one of the contextual buttons alongside the screen offers the detour option. This brings up choices for avoiding the current, next, or a specifically input road. In practice, we found this a handy way to cope with traffic, although other manufacturers' systems include real-time traffic information for avoiding these situations more proactively.
The other controls are intuitive, with nice large buttons and switches for the climate control and nonnavigation trip computing functions. Steering wheel controls cover only the cruise control, no audio features. A button showing a phone handset merely mutes the audio--Bluetooth cell integration is still not available on the Escape. Ford has already announced serious upgrades for its 2008 Mercury Mariner Hybrid, and the next year's model of the Ford Escape Hybrid will probably get a similar makeover.
Ford would have it that the impressive collection of motors and computers in the Escape Hybrid offers the performance of a V-6 while obviously sipping only four cylinders' worth of fuel, which is true in terms of acceleration. The Escape Hybrid certainly outdoes its counterpart in efficiency. The EPA rates the hybrid at 36mpg in the city and 31 highway, and the V-6 at 20 and 24mpg, respectively. In a mix of driving biased toward freeway miles, we averaged 28.9mpg during our test period in the Escape Hybrid. But things feel more leisurely in the hybrid under full acceleration, largely due to the electronically controlled continuously variable transmission and its characteristic spool-up time. Overall agility is in the V-6's favor, as the front-wheel-drive Escape Sport XLT weighs in at 3,276 pounds versus the Escape Hybrid's 3,594 pounds, no small difference.
The power display shows when power is coming from the engine, the electric motor, or both.
But hybrid performance is defined differently, and Ford does deliver with a technologically advanced full-hybrid system worthy of a little green preening. Capable of electric-only operation up to 25mph, and with seamless starting and integration of the gas engine, Ford's hybrid drivetrain is a feather in the cap of the otherwise struggling manufacturer. The Escape Hybrid meets SULEV II and AT-PZEV emissions standards, was the first full-hybrid SUV, and was named 2005 North American Truck of the Year.
The 2.3-liter inline-four gas engine is optimized for efficiency with the Atkinson combustion cycle, which lowers the effective displacement of the engine by letting a bit of the fuel-air mixture out through the intake valves at the beginning of compression. Consumption is reduced at the expense of power, and the engine feels rougher than a conventional four, but economy is the name of the game.
When driving to win that game, the fuel monitor screen of the nav system becomes the scoreboard as you creep away from stoplights, staying electric as long as possible to delay the dreaded snap of the instant mpg meter from infinity back down to fossil-fuel territory. Another moving graph shows average economy over the last 15 minutes. A separate screen shows a diagram of the various components and which are generating power, including the regenerative brakes charging the batteries.
Lack of stability
The Escape Hybrid carries the usual roster of safety and security features. Four-wheel antilock brakes are standard along with front driver and passenger airbags, dual-stage for the driver only, and with an occupant sensor for the passenger side. Side intrusion door beams are also standard.
The optional safety package ($595) adds side impact airbags for the front seats, side curtain airbags, and a rollover sensor to trigger them. To help avoid such an accident in the absence of this option, and notable given Ford's history with SUV tires, a tire-pressure monitoring system is standard. Electronic stability isn't available on the Escape Hybrid, something Ford will probably remedy in the next model year, as the Department of Transportation will make it a requirement. The Escape Hybrid earns four stars for driver and passenger front impact, and the maximum five stars for front and rear side impacts. The car was not subjected to rollover tests.
Ford's normal three-year/36,000-mile warranty applies to the Escape Hybrid, as does the company's five-year/60,000-mile power train warranty. A special eight-year/100,000-mile warranty covers the hybrid-related components. Oil change intervals are recommended every 10,000 miles or yearly.
Our overall impression of the Ford Escape Hybrid improved a little despite nothing of consequence changing in the car itself. Certainly the Escape Hybrid we tested in February exhibited some behavior that lent it an air of incompletion, most notably an audibly complaining chassis. But whether attention to assembly detail has improved or our particular example had anomalous problems, we were happier with the 2007. The more solid feel and lack of distracting noises earned it an extra point in our Comfort rating.
The final MSRP of our 2006 tester was $31,080. Even with an extra option or two, the bottom line of our 2007 Escape Hybrid's sticker was $30,300. With no new competitors having appeared in the hybrid SUV segment, the Escape Hybrid can still lay claim to the title of most fuel-efficient SUV in the world. And with its price coming down and no one expecting the same to hold true for gasoline prices, the Ford Escape Hybrid will continue to be a compelling choice for urbanites conscious of their fossil-fuel footprints.