AT THE WHEEL REVIEWS: HYBRIDS
2006 FORD ESCAPE HYBRID
Can an SUV burn a lot less gas without giving up anything?
By Frederick Staab Cruise Control Radio.Com
You would think Bill Ford Jr., head of the Ford Motor Company, would be the hero of each and every eco-friendly activist that has ever laid eyes on his fuel-efficient Ford Escape Hybrid. Celebrities are lining up to snap the models fresh off the assembly line, and the potential production ceiling has been raised from 4,000 to 20,000 per year. Well, after all, that Mr. Ford still has his ecological critics, but we thought it was time to take a closer look at the first hybrid SUV.
Recently, I had a rare chance to test drive the still scarce Escape Hybrid. Mr. Ford has taken the popular, albeit small, Escape SUV and managed to turn it in to a fuel-sipping 30 mpg vehicle that really offers just about everything the traditional model has without making big compromises.
I have always liked the shape and size of the Escape. It’s big enough to haul people and cargo, yet it’s car like when it comes to road handling and parking-lot manners. Ours came in an attractive red-fire pearl clear coat with side cladding, wheel lips and bumpers in silver. Externally, there is little or no difference in appearance between its non-hybrid brothers and sisters, save for small hybrid tags on the front doors and rear lift gate.
Likewise, a quick scan of the interior would not immediately tip you off that a hybrid drivetrain has been installed. The left-hand side of the gauge cluster includes the charge/assist instrument that gives some basic information about whether or not you are using the electric-motor assist or regenerately recharging the 330-volt sealed nickel-metal hydride pack by hitting the brakes. Our test vehicle had the $1,850 audiophile/navigation option that allows display of a fuel-economy graph and a hybrid energy-flow diagram to keep track of the gas-powered and electrical components of the drivetrain.
Since 2005 Escapes have a spare tire relocated on the underside of the vehicle, allowing for a thin space for storage or batteries beneath the cargo-area floor. By the way, the Escape has 27.6 cubic feet of cargo capacity with the rear seat up and room for five passengers in the cabin.
The overriding power train concept developed by Ford engineers was to offer similar performance of the V-6 200-horsepower Escape, with better economy than its standard four cylinder. To do this, they teamed up a 2.3-liter four-cylinder Atkinson cycle engine rated at 133 horsepower with a 94 horsepower permanent magnet AC synchronous motor. Due to drivetrain loss, in this case 133 and 94 add up to 155 horsepower. By the way, simply put, an Atkinson cycle engine gains efficiency by delaying intake-valve closure. The downside is a reduction in torque, but since the electric motor has plenty of instant twist on demand, these two seemingly unmatched power sources play well together.
Driving the Escape hybrid is not too different from the gas-only models. With a charged battery, turn the key and lightly press the accelerator, and you will be able to travel up to about 25 mph before the gas engine fires up. In most cases, reverse gear is a battery/motor-only situation. The process of transition from electric to gas power is seamless thanks to the motor also acting as a starter for the four cylinder. In situations where maximum acceleration is needed, such as entering a highway or passing other vehicles, both power sources offer all their power.
The Escape Hybrid is available in front-wheel drive or the as-tested all-wheel drive. For slippery conditions or light off-roading, the AWD system is completely automatic; all knobs have been eliminated from the dash.
Whatever wheels are driving the Escape Hybrid, all models include a continuously variable transmission (CVT). Stab the throttle with gusto and the engine screams to about 5,000 rpm and stays there till the vehicle gets up to speed. There is no gear shifting. While Ford has deemed this to be the most efficient method of getting power to the wheels, I have to say I am not a fan. The high-revving engine makes you think you are stuck in first gear, and perhaps thanks to affect of psychoacoustics, the driver gets the feeling the hybrid is slow and sluggish even if acceleration is acceptable, which it is.
The window sticker pegs mileage at 33 city and 29 mpg on the highway. With those numbers, the 15-gallon fuel tank will give you a 435-mile range for highway trips. The annual tab for gas is $875, pretty cheap for a five-passenger AWD vehicle. Who knows, if you are lucky enough to score one of these, you just might be mistaken as a Hollywood celebrity.
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