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  • Roger Witherspoon

Easy Green Rolling: Escape in a Hybrid

By Roger Witherspoon


There is a cacophony of sounds associated with driving in New York City. Cab

drivers tend to either live on their horns or lean out their window to shout at other

motorists. There is the intermittent din from never ending construction projects. There is

usually the wail of a siren or two and a persistent, background hum from several million

moving people. And then, adding to the musical mosaic is the sound of car you happen to

be driving.

Unless, of course, you are in a hybrid. Rides in fully functional vehicles with both

gasoline and electric motors, like the Ford Escape Hybrid or its upscale cousin, the

Mercury Mariner Hybrid, have their own distinct sound: silence. It is disconcerting, at

first, to drive and hear nothing. And the operational sound of a hybrid, with its two types

of motors, is akin to a mobile magician’s trick – you hear and feel the steady rumble of

the familiar sounding gasoline engine and then, suddenly, you don’t.

Ford has taken a step to go after the mobile “green” market and chase Toyota with

mid-sized SUVs which can run on either regular, unleaded gasoline or on the electric

motor. In that regard, it is a true hybrid, similar to those in the Toyota fleet, rather than

the modified hybrids offered by General Motors. In the GM system, the cars can not run

on an electric motor. Instead, the fuel savings come by system in which the gas engine

shuts off when the car is stopped or idling, and the electric motor continues to operate

the car’s electrical systems and restart the gas motor when you touch the accelerator.

Ford’s decision to use the Escape, which they bill as the “best selling SUV on the

planet”, provides a high visibility platform from which to launch their hybrid system. To

start with the hybrid version of the car is a complete Escape, with the handling, storage,

and comfort which has made the small SUV so popular. It is small enough to handle like

a sedan, which can be useful if you are roaming through New England and, periodically,

have to dodge the wandering deer who like to stroll on paved roads. But the economics of

hybrid technology are evident in tradeoffs which are made in engine performance and

interior comfort. The use of expensive technology has consequences.

In terms of power, the traditional Ford Escape has a conventional, 200

horsepower, V-6 engine which is more than ample to propel the boxy little SUV to the

front of the highway pack. It is stable enough that if one is cruising on the open highway

and the speedometer is pushing 80 you do not fear rolling over or losing control on

curves. The Escape’s traction control and all wheel drive also make it a sure footed

vehicle on severely winding, gravel, and country roads.

But where Toyota has opted for two electric motors – one for each axel to provide

maximum power and torque – Ford has opted for the single electric motor. It is designed

for city driving, and runs the car silently up to about 30 miles per hour. At that point, the

gasoline engine takes over. When the car is accelerating, however, both the engine and

motor are functioning, with the electric motor providing a boost to the more powerful

gasoline engine.

As a result, the Escape Hybrid has a gasoline engine producing only 133

horsepower and an electric motor which, by itself, produces 94 horsepower but in its

boost mode raises the combined engines to only 155 horsepower. That makes the Escape

Hybrid a sluggish vehicle when you are seeking a burst of power. It just doesn’t have it.

It will reach the same speeds as the regular Escape, and is strong enough to accelerate

while climbing a steep hill. But it takes awhile for the Hybrid to get up to speed.

For most practical driving purposes, that is not really an issue. Speed is a relative

concept in a place like New York City, where the average speed on highways is less than

30 miles per hour and street traffic speed sinks into the 20s.

The savings on gasoline from the use of the hybrid are greatest if the bulk of the

driving is in urban settings. The regular Ford Escape has EPA mileage ratings of 17 miles

per gallon in city driving and 22 miles per gallon on highways, while the Escape Hybrid

poses 36 miles per gallon under the street lights and 31 miles per gallon on the open road.

The economics work this way. The EPA estimates that the average motorist

drives 15,000 miles annually. In that case, since gasoline engines are inefficient in stop

and go traffic, the owner of a regular Ford Escape would buy 882 gallons of gasoline

annually to cruise around the city, or 681 gallons to roam the highways. A Ford Escape

Hybrid owner with the same driving habits would need 416 gallons of gas cruising

around the big city, an annual savings of 466 gallons; and 484 gallons on the highway, an

annual reduction of 197 gallons.

While those numbers are significant, keep in mind that motorists do not buy

gasoline by the hundreds of gallons. A reduction of 466 gallons annually in street driving

averages out to about nine gallons of gasoline saved weekly. At today’s prices, that is

about $30, which is not insignificant. But the new technology costs a premium of about

$3,100, which is paid up front when you buy the hybrid. At that rate, it would take at

least two years of “savings” to equal the up front investment – and that is only if the

driving is completely in the city and the actual mileage equals the EPA’s overly

optimistic test mileage. In reality, it is likely to take at least three years before the

reduction in fuel consumption produces an ongoing cash savings.

Which brings us to the other tradeoff. The Ford Escape tested was a comfortable,

all inclusive model with powered, heated, leather seats and a décor accented with wood

and chrome. To cut down on the sticker price, the Escape Hybrid had manually operated

cloth seats, for example, and a rather plain looking interior. It was comfortable, but not

nearly the esthetically pleasing experience provided by the upscale, non-hybrid Escape.

Buying a Hybrid, therefore, means either paying for the privilege of operating a

more energy efficient car, or settling for little less comfort. The differences are more

esthetic than functional: you can easily drive a car without a navigation system, satellite

radio, or a six-disc, in-dash CD player. But the time spent in a minimalist car is much less

enjoyable and the traffic jams are much harder to tolerate.

The Escape is a small SUV, but it is designed to transport large folks in comfort.

Bad Boy Alan Iverson could easily trade in his tricked-out Escalade for an Escape Hybrid

and lazily take three of his NBA buddies on a cross country road trip. As its name

implies, the Escape can provide a comfortable exit from the daily grind.

2008 Ford Escape Hybrid

MSRP: $33,195

EPA Mileage: 36 MPG City 31 MPG Highway

Towing Capacity: 1,000 Pounds

Performance/ Safety:

2.3-Liter, DOHC 4-cyulinder, aluminum engine producing 133 horsepower and 124

pound/feet of torque; 70-KW electric traction motor producing an equivalent to 94

horsepower; battery recharging generator motor; 330-volt battery pack; electronically

controlled continuously variable transmission; rack & pinion steering; 4-wheel disc

brakes; 16-inch aluminum wheels; independent front & rear suspension; roll and stability

control; canopy and side airbags.

Interior/ Comfort:

AM/FM Sirius satellite radio; 6-disc in-dash CD & MP3 player; DVD navigation system;

leather seats; heated front seats; retractable cargo cover; roof rack; 110-volt power outlet.

2008 Ford Escape

MSRP: $30,215

EPA Mileage: 17 MPG City 22 MPG Highway

Towing Capacity: 3,500 Pounds

Performance/ Safety:

3.0-Liter, Duratec, aluminum V-6 engine producing 200 horsepower and 193 pound/feet

of torque; 4-speed automatic transmission; 4-wheel anti-lock disc brakes; 16-inch steel

wheels; 4-wheel drive; fog lamps; heated external mirrors; 4-wheel independent

suspension; role and stability control; canopy and side airbags.

Interior/ Comfort:

AM/FM Sirius satellite radio; 6-disc in-dash CD & MP3 player; DVD navigation system;

leather seats; heated front seats; retractable cargo cover; roof racks;


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