It has been said many times that Americans have a love affair with SUVs. The SUV grew from the simple needs of hauling people and cargo in comfort to offering rugged capability. They began replacing traditional station wagons in the early '90s, and consumers haven't looked back since. Once people discovered the many benefits SUVs had over their station wagon counterparts, such as better visibility, feelings of security, higher ground clearance, and optional four-wheel drive, it quickly became the vehicle of choice for growing families. And with gas so affordable, the penalty in fuel economy hadn't traditionally been a purchase consideration, so SUVs grew in size to haul bigger loads, larger trailers, and more people.

With fuel's recent shift in supply contributing to skyrocketing gas prices in America, people want to be more environmentally responsible, as long as it means not giving up the utility of their SUVs. When it became clear to vehicle manufacturers that buyers weren't using the truck-based SUVs to their full potential and were starting to let the price of gas influence their purchases, they split the next generation of SUVs into two distinct branches: traditional truck-based sport utility vehicles and more fuel-efficient, lighter-weight, car-based SUVs with light-duty all-wheel-drive systems. But, SUVs still caught disapproval for not being efficient enough. Until now, SUV owners have had to sit back and take criticism for their purchases because no manufacturer offered a vehicle that combined both utility and economy. Ford looked at the situation and saw an opportunity to bring hybrid technology to a completely new segment. The company has spent the last few years developing the world's first hybrid SUV on the redesigned '05 Escape platform with a no-compromise approach, meaning none of the Escape's versatility was to be lost in the transformation from a gasoline to hybrid powertrain.

Creating the Escape Hybrid was no simple task because the hybrid drivetrain is a combination of systems that must integrate several functions, such as engine start and stop, electric drive, electric engine assist, and regenerative braking in order to work properly. One of the changes to the conventional '05 Escape that allowed this idea to work was moving the spare tire from under the cargo floor to the outside underbody, clearing room for the nickel-metal hydride battery pack of the hybrid model. The Escape Hybrid's engine, eCVT transmission, electric motor, and controller also all fit in the space normally occupied by the traditional gas engine and transmission. Because of this packaging efficiency, the Escape Hybrid's interior and exterior dimensions and cargo volume are identical to the gasoline-powered model. In fact, the only visual cue that exposes the Escape Hybrid, other than badging, is the vent in the rear quarter glass on the driver-side that serves as part of the climate control system for the battery pack. Regenerative braking harnesses heat energy from the brakes and uses it to bring the battery pack back up to a full charge. Part of the reason the Escape Hybrid never has to be plugged in lies with this technology. To ensure consumer acceptance, the Escape Hybrid was put through Ford's rigorous truck and SUV durability testing procedures and comes standard with an 8-year/100,000-mile warranty on hybrid-specific components.

Unlike the Honda Civic or Chevrolet Silverado, which are mild hybrids that require the engine for acceleration and supplements it with an electric motor when needed, the Escape Hybrid is a full hybrid, just like the Toyota Prius. It can accelerate solely on battery power up to speeds of about 25mph, at which point the gas engine kicks in and takes over. In the Escape Hybrid, the gas engine is an Atkinson-cycle variant of the conventional Escape's Duratec 23 2.3L four-cylinder. On its own, the Atkinson-cycle engine provides a 4 percent gain in efficiency over the standard 2.3L four in the Escape. When the batteries are charged, the Escape Hybrid can combine both gas and electric power on-demand to truly deliver V-6 performance with four-cylinder fuel economy. Because of the electric motor and regenerative braking, hybrids are actually more fuel-efficient in the city than on the highway. The electric drive is most efficient at low speeds and low loads, right where the gas engine is least efficient, making for a perfect powertrain partnership.

The Escape Hybrid is fun to drive and a little bit different from the daily driver in your garage. Sure, it starts up normally enough, and just like any vehicle, you turn the key and the engine fires up and sets into a smooth idle. If the battery pack is charged, the engine turns off, leaving you with an eerie silence. Plunk the shifter into gear, and the Escape Hybrid maneuvers with only the little sounds normally muffled by a running engine. Once underway, the Escape Hybrid will run exclusively on its 70-kilowatt motor until you reach 25 mph. If it senses that extra power is needed, within 400 milliseconds, it seamlessly fires up the engine. In fact, the engine starts up so smoothly that on noisier road surfaces you would have to look down at the tach to know if the engine had taken over propulsion duties. Making the transition from a running engine to engine-off more seamless, the engineers designed the engine to shut down as the Escape Hybrid coasts to a stop.

When driving the Escape Hybrid, you feel as if you are immersed in a video game where fuel economy numbers become a high score. It is hard to keep your eyes off the colorful graphic display because you are constantly trying to beat the fuel economy from your last tank of gas, or even your last 15-minute drive. Subconsciously, you take on a whole new driving style. When driven conservatively, the Escape has the potential of offering an over 500-mile range from its 15-gallon tank, all while achieving an incredible reduction in tailpipe emissions. The Escape Hybrid's emissions are so low, it is certified as an Advanced Technology Partial Zero Emissions standard, which means it is pretty darn clean.

Another way the Escape improves efficiency is with an electrically assisted power steering system that provides great feedback and natural feel with none of the vagueness of other electrical steering systems we recently tested. Brake feel is awesome with a firm pedal and good stopping power. We have to admit, this is one of the best-feeling brake pedals in any Ford product. All of this adds up to 35 to 40 mpg in the city, and we averaged 38 mpg during our one-day test of mixed driving. Ford expects the Escape Hybrid to achieve about 30 mpg on the highway.

Ford is hoping the Escape Hybrid will appeal to those who want to be environmentally responsible but are not looking to make a social statement or draw attention to themselves. The Escape Hybrid has a traditional look that won't intimidate buyers considering hybrid technology and want it in a familiar package. With extra features such as leather seats, a center console with a floor shifter, a Hybrid Data/AM/FM/CD/Navigation head unit, a 110v electrical outlet, a 1,000-pound tow rating, and the availability of 2WD or 4WD, the Escape Hybrid should be a sales success by the time you read this. Hybrid technology is just a glimpse at the future of modern transportation, but as long as companies like Ford can continue to offer a no-compromise approaches to the technology, we don't think buyers will have any problem taking a chance on the future.

Specs
'05 Ford Escape HybridVehicle Type: Five-door, compact SUVBase Price: TBAEngine: 2.3L DOHC 16V I-4Power: 133 hp at 6,000 rpmTorque: 129 lb-ft at 4,500 rpmElectric Motor: Permanent magnet AC synchronous motorPower: 94 hp (70kW) at 3,500 to 5,000 rpmVoltage: 400v maximumHybrid System Net Horsepower: 155 Transmission: Electronically Controlled Continuously Variable Transmission (eCVT)Wheelbase (in): 103.1Length (in): 174.9Width (in): 70.1Height (in): 70.4Fuel Capacity: 15 gallons Curb Weight (lb): 3,627 (2WD), 3,792 (4WD)Max Tow Rating (lb): 1,000