The Ford Escape may be the most popular vehicle you never heard of. On the road, it gets lost in a sea of Toyota RAV4s and Honda CRVs. Even among its Ford garage-mates, it lacks the history of Taurus or the visceral appeal of Mustang.
Yet the Escape was the ninth best selling vehicle in the U.S. in February, outselling all four of the models listed above. Moreover, it belongs to one of the hottest product segments — the compact crossover SUV. Buyers love the combination of wagon-like utility, passenger car comfort, and go-anywhere four-wheel-drive.
Escape brings something else to the party other makers don’t: a hybrid version. The 2010 Escape Hybrid is powered by a 2.5-liter four-cylinder gasoline engine as well as two electric motors that all together produce 177 horsepower.
The point of a hybrid is to generate lower emissions and burn less gas, and the Hybrid does both with an EPA rating of 30 mpg city/27 mpg highway. (I got close to 30 mpg over several hundred miles of driving.) That’s a big improvement compared with the conventional four-wheel-Escape, which gets only 20mpg city/26 mpg highway.
But there is no free lunch, and the Hybrid carries a steep price premium over the conventional Escape — about $7,500. The MSRP on my Ingot Silver Metallic tester was $34,010, and options like the navigation system pushed the as-tested price to $37,525. The base price for the Limited model without the hybrid starts at $26,350.
That price bump helps explain why only 1,400 Hybrids were among the 25,000 Escapes sold in the first two months of the year.
The Hybrid demands some attention when getting under way. After you turn the ignition key, a “ready to start” message flashes — a good thing since the electric motor is effectively silent. Once you get the message, you are ready to roll; the gasoline engine, with its reassuring thrum, comes on a few seconds later.
Batteries on board add a few hundred pounds of additional weight to the Hybrid, but they aren’t noticeable until you try to accelerate. Zero to 60 miles per hour requires 10.4 seconds, compared with a still-leisurely 9.1 seconds for the conventional Escape. Other test drivers have found the Hybrid’s regenerative brakes spongy to the touch, but they weren’t objectionable to me.
The Escape may not have long to live in its current configuration. Media reports say it will be replaced by a version of the more stylish European Kuga, when its production moves to the U.S. in 2011.
Given Ford CEO Alan Mulally’s penchant for retaining heritage model names, the Escape name may be transplanted to the new vehicle. But the fate of the Hybrid version is unclear. With hybrid sales representing just 5.6% of overall volume this year, Ford may be looking for a more cost-effective way to achieve lower emissions and better fuel economy.