- The Washington Times - Friday, November 21, 2008

With gas prices now near $2 a gallon, let’s hope America resists the urge to return to its fuel guzzling ways. After all, an increase in demand for gas could quickly cause prices to run back up the painful $4 a gallon mark of just a few months ago. Oftentimes, large SUVs were to blame for our obsession with all things supersized.

So what do you do if you really need SUV size and utility, but want decent fuel economy? Can you say SUV and 30 mpg in the same sentence?

Yes, if the SUV you’re talking about is the Ford Escape Hybrid (Escape’s corporate twin is the Mercury Mariner Hybrid).

In a week of testing, I never dropped below 30 mpg despite varied driving conditions.

The heart of the 2009 Escape Hybrid is its new, 171-horsepower, 2.5-liter four-cylinder engine with intake variable cam timing (i-VCT) for enhanced fuel economy and performance, coupled to a 94-horsepower electric motor.

I found the engine very responsive to urgent prodding by my right foot, and with 171 pound-feet of torque at 4500 rpm, the engine is also well suited for stop and go city driving. Power is channeled though an electronically controlled, continuously variable transmission (ECVT).

On the road, the Escape Hybrid is an able performer, but it takes a while to get used to, as it’s a bit noisy. Under acceleration, the four cylinder gas engine, the 94-horsepower permanent magnet electric motor, and the ECVT make quite a racket.

And the ECVT has no defined shift points, so it just seems like you will keep accelerating forever. Escape runs on electric power when at stoplights and when idling, then switches to gas or a combination of gas/ electric power when under full acceleration or full electrical load.

Even though the new Escape Hybrid is larger and more muscular than its predecessor, it’s more fuel efficient, thanks to major technology upgrades. To help squeeze out every possible improvement in mpg, the Escape development team focused on key details such as tire technology and aerodynamic efficiency.

Some key components in achieving this include new low-rolling-resistance tires, developed in cooperation with Michelin; Aerodynamic refinements that account for increased fuel efficiency include a redesigned front bumper spoiler and new rear tire spoilers, the first application on a Ford SUV; and Electric Power Assist Steering (EPAS) replaces the traditional hydraulic power steering pump.

Ford’s Sync telematics system is an incredible standard feature. Need to change radio channels? Don’t reach for the dial, just tell Sync and it will do it for you. Need to find your way? Tell Sync the state, city and address of your destination and you are there (nav system optional). I found this especially useful when trying to find a destination after I’d already hit the road.

Unlike some lesser navigation systems, you can input voice commands while you are driving instead of pulling off the road to input the directions manually.

The Escape Hybrid comes with a 3-year, 36,000-mile bumper-to-bumper/5-year, 60,000-mile powertrain warranty. Hybrid specific components are covered by a warranty of 8-years or 100,000 miles.

The 2009 Escape Hybrid retails for $29,305, about $9,000 more than the base gasoline powered Escape.

With 22 city and 28 highway mpg, it will take quite a while to recoup the difference in price between the two (the Hybrid is rated at 34 city/31 highway).

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