By Larry E. Hall
Finally, after just more than a decade, Ford is bringing out an all-new Escape compact sport utility vehicle, or perhaps we should say, crossover utility vehicle. Since its debut as a 2001 model, the Escape has retained the same shape and overall size with just basic exterior and interior refreshes. In fact, the biggest news about the Escape over the past 10-plus years was the introduction in 2004 of the Escape Hybrid as a 2005 model. It was not only Ford’s first hybrid vehicle, it was the world’s first hybrid SUV.
When the new Escape arrives in late spring it will have shed its boxy, dated SUV look, replaced with today’s trendy jelly-bean crossover styling – joining those inflated family wagons slightly insecure about their place in the automotive pecking order.
Inspired by the European Ford Kuga, the new Escape is a giant leap forward but will leave something behind – a hybrid variant. That’s right, Ford will no longer offer an Escape Hybrid.
Why drop the hybrid powertrain after all these years? Derrick Kuzak, Ford’s group vice president of global product development, said that Ford’s EcoBoost four-cylinder engines would offer fuel economy that “approaches the existing hybrid.” He added that the automaker reasoned that an Escape with a higher mpg rating would not be necessary to attract buyers.
The more compelling reason is Ford is placing its hybrid bets on the upcoming C-Max models. The C-Max Hybrid and C-Max Energi plug-in hybrid are dedicated models developed to compete with the expanding Toyota Prius lineup. Kuzak said the C-Max is a multi-activity vehicle that provides nearly the same functionality as the Escape while delivering better fuel economy. C-Max will go on sale in the second half of 2012.
Unmentioned by Kuzak, but perhaps another reason, is the Escape Hybrid hasn’t been selling. After peaking in 2007 with 20,961 units sold, the little hybrid SUV’s sales have declined to 11,183 at the end of 2011.
Since the Escape Hybrid is a lame duck – production ends in March – there are no changes for the 2012 model year. Two trim levels of Escape Hybrid are offered, Base and Limited. The base two-wheel drive has a manufacturer suggested retail price of $30,570; the four-wheel drive is $32,320. The Limited trim 2WD starts at $33,080 and the 4WD at $34,830.
Under The Hood
The Escape’s hybrid powertrain begins with a 155-horsepower 2.5-liter lean-burning, Atkinson-cycle gasoline engine that shares motivational tasks with a 94-horsepower permanent magnet motor. A planetary gear set transmits the blended output to an electronically controlled continuously variable transmission (CVT) that directs the power to the front wheels.
Differences in the torque curves of the gas engine and electric motor means that the system’s output is 177 horsepower, a more than adequate amount of power for a compact SUV. Ford doesn’t publish torque numbers for the electric motor, but the four-cylinder engine produces 136 pound-feet.
As a “full” hybrid system, the Escape Hybrid is able to operate under pure-electric power only, gasoline power only, or a combination of the two. The system makes all the decisions: when to engage motor, engine, or both. Assuming the 330-volt nickel-metal-hydride battery pack is in a charged state, it is easy to drive up to a speed of 44 mph on electric power. It does take a light foot, but not to the point of holding up normal traffic. Typically, the little hybrid SUV can start, stop and cruise at 44 mph for around two miles before the gas engine kicks in to automatically replenish the batteries. Exceed that speed or distance, or accelerate at a faster rate, and the transition to gasoline power is virtually seamless.
The Escape Hybrid also saves gas by automatically shutting off the engine when coming to a stop, and keeping it off at a standstill while it runs accessories on battery power. The engine fires up again when the accelerator is touched.
Exterior and Interior
The 2012 Escape Hybrid has classic proportions and adheres to the “Ford Tough” look that is found on the brand’s pickup truck line. For many buyers, this is what an SUV should look like and what virtually all of them did before an era of curvaceous crossovers.
Up front, the hood features a unique “reverse crease” design that draws the eye to the power center of the vehicle – a deliberate and crafty design method intended to put emphasis on performance. The front fascia has headlamps that sweep up toward the front corners, and flank an upright grille. Design cues include large front and rear fender flares, and the backside is typical old-school SUV squared-off design with a two-piece tailgate.
There’s nothing particularly special about the Escape Hybrid’s interior design, though all gauges are easy to read and switches have a substantial feel. The tachometer has a green zone below the zero to indicate when the vehicle is driving on electric power. An additional gauge indicates whether the electric motor is charging the batteries or assisting the gasoline engine. Both are helpful for altering driving habits in the quest for optimum fuel economy
In terms of functionality, the front seats are comfortable for even large adults, but some reviewers think the seats are too tall, giving a feeling of hovering above the controls. The rear seat has ample room for three, but it lacks adjustments for reclining and sliding back/forth. There’s a respectable 30.9 cubic feet of cargo room; folding the second-row seats brings the total to 66 cubic feet. Unlike the regular Escape, which has a storage well under the cargo floor, there’s no such area here because the space is taken by the hybrid’s high-voltage battery pack.
High-Tech Gizmos Galore
The Escape Hybrid may have a throwback exterior and is dated inside, but few crossovers of any vintage can match its assemblage of gadgets and features. These include electric power steering, which improves fuel economy by eliminating a hydraulic system’s draw on the engine. It also makes possible a couple of slick features.
The optional Active Park Assist can measure an appropriate parallel parking space and then employs the electric steering to back the Escape into the space while the driver – hands off the wheel – controls the speed with the brake. That’s a pretty neat trick, but more important and useful is the electric steering makes possible Ford’s Pull-Drift Compensation. This feature pares driver fatigue and increases steering control by automatically compensating for drift-triggering factors such as severely crowned roads or strong crosswinds.
Standard is the Ford/Microsoft Sync infotainment. The basic Sync setup can deliver turn-by-turn directions and other information through the audio system. Mated with the optional voice-activated, hard-drive navigation system, Sync expands to incorporate Bluetooth and streaming audio, iPod USB interface, and more detailed mapping and information services. Available as well is “MyKey,” a system that allows owners to limit a vehicle’s top speed and audio volume – a big plus for parents. Other available add-ons include a remote-start function, rear DVD entertainment system, backup proximity alarm, and a rearview camera.
On the safety side, the Escape Hybrid includes Roll Stability as part of the stability control system. It is the only system with a sensor that can detect the start of a rollover and act to stop it.
On The Road
Interestingly, when introduced, the Escape was one of the first crossover SUVs. It combined a four-door body shell with a front-wheel-drive, car-type chassis borrowed from the Mazda 6 to form a single, unibody structure. It was space-efficient, lightweight and among the first SUVs with an all-independent suspension. This gives the Escape Hybrid car-like qualities.
Like Toyota’s RAV4 and Honda’s CR-V, the Escape Hybrid has fairly stiff suspension, but the ride is quiet and smooth, with good absorption of bumps. Body roll is present but not excessive. The electric power steering provides a high degree of assist, which means it doesn’t take a lot of effort to turn the steering wheel. Steering is precise, with minimal play in the wheel.
The hybrid powertrain delivers acceptable acceleration that gives it enough oomph to get up to highway speeds safely. According to Ford, the system delivers zero-to-60 mph acceleration equivalent to that of a 240-horsepower V-6.
Should You Buy A Lame Duck 2012 Escape Hybrid?
The Ford Escape Hybrid is hands down the most efficient crossover SUVs on the market. That, by itself, is one of the weightiest claims a vehicle can make these days, given the popularity of these vehicles, combined with the need for more economical solutions to the upward price trend of gasoline. To that end, the front-drive version has a federal fuel economy rating of 34 city/31 highway and a combined 32 mpg. The all-wheel drive model offers 30/27/29.
At $30,570, the base Escape Hybrid commands a nearly $6,000 premium over its gasoline-powered Escape counterpart. This makes it one of the most expensive compact SUVs, although it’s more affordable than most hybrid SUVs. Compared to the Toyota Highlander Hybrid and the Lexus RX 400h Hybrid, it is significantly less expensive – but still well equipped.
However, being a lame duck vehicle has its advantages. As Ford clears out inventories of the 2012 Escape Hybrids that opens the door for striking a can’t-miss deal via generous manufacturer incentives and deep dealer discounts.
If dated SUV styling isn’t your thing, you could wait until summer for the C-Max Hybrid to arrive. It should be priced about the same as the Escape Hybrid and offer better fuel economy. The downside is, the interior space is a bit smaller and it’s unknown if AWD will be offered.
Hybrid bragging rights not important to you? Models like the RAV4 and CR-V do grant combined fuel mileage in the high 20s – both of these vehicles, in particular, are known to have better build quality and more refinement for less money.
But in the hybrid SUV market, there’s no denying that the Escape Hybrid has an edge over its competitors with better fuel economy and price.
Prices are Manufacturer Suggested Retail Price (MSRP) at time of publication and do not include destination charges, taxes or licensing.