2008 Ford Escape Hybrid Review

By Igor Holas and Melissa J. Sanchez

03.18.2008

After driving the 2008 Taurus X, Ford loaned us their Escape Hybrid for a week. We loved the Taurus X, and anticipated having a similarly positive reaction to the Escape, especially the Hybrid version we were getting. However, after a week of driving the cute-ute, the conclusion was much less positive.

The Car

Ford loaned us a fully-loaded front wheel drive Escape Hybrid. The base price of the Hybrid is $25,740 (including destination), but our tester added $5,080 in options for a total price-as-tested of $30,820. Comparing this price to a V6 Escape using TrueDelta.com feature-adjusted price comparison tool, the Escape hybrid is $2,505 more expensive. However, you get $1,500 of that difference back in tax credit, making the real difference a mere $1,000, and that is small price to pay for the advantages of the Hybrid power train. Comparing the Escape Hybrid to the only other small SUV hybrid on the market, the Saturn Vue Greenline, the two are virtually identically priced with only $480 in price difference to the Vue’s advantage. However, the Vue qualifies only for $500 tax credit, which makes the Ford $1,000 cheaper.

The Hybrid

The first order of business is the Hybrid power train. This is the part of the car that truly shines, and I want to talk about it before I start complaining about the Escape in general. Unlike the Vue, the Escape uses a full hybrid system, meaning that both the gasoline engine as well as the electric motor are able to power the car on their own, or simultaneously (the Greenline has to keep the engine running whenever the car is in motion).

Ford’s hybrid system is virtually identical to Toyota’s Hybrid Synergy Drive system (in fact Toyota and Ford exchanged notes during development); both the systems use similar logic in powering the cars, they both use continuous variable transmission to link the motor, engine, battery and the wheels, and they both use similar batteries. However, unlike Toyota’s Prius (which we reviewed recently HERE) the Escape is not an “all out” hybrid. Ford did not pursue the ultimate mileage by using a smaller gasoline engine. The Prius uses a tiny 1.5l engine, relying more heavily on the electric power to propel it to speed. As my colleague Chris Haak learned, this left the car feeling underpowered in many situations. By contrast, Ford uses the same-size 2.3l engine it uses in the base Escape. This way, despite the added weight of the hybrid components, the Escape Hybrid never feels underpowered. Indeed the added low end torque of the electric motor, made this Hybrid feel like it had a V6 under the hood.


The sacrifice of the Escape’s setup is in the fuel mileage. The Escape hybrid is rated at 34 miles-per gallon in the city and 30 mpg on the highway (compared to Prius’ 48/45 rating). In our driving we achieved a mere 25mpg, but this low fuel mileage was simply a result of Melissa’s utter refusal to drive this hybrid “like a hybrid.” Indeed her driving style shows the true mileage comparison between gasoline and hybrid cars – compared to our Mazda3 with the same gasoline engine (2.3l) and manual transmission, the Escape Hybrid achieved an extra five miles a gallon. That is pretty impressive for a slug-shaped, heavy SUV. The complete opposite to Melissa’s driving style was mine. The nerd in me reveled at the challenge of maximizing the mileage, and indeed whenever I was behind the wheel the Escape averaged at least 30 miles per gallon and usually well above.

One factor of the hybrid system that surprised me was its inability to keep the battery charged even in (what I considered) perfect hybrid conditions. We live in the heart of Philadelphia, and much of our driving is done on side streets with a four-way stop sign at every corner. So the driving cycle consist of accelerating to about 20 miles an hour, cruising for a few seconds and then coming to a stop. I assumed this driving cycle would be perfect for the hybrid and we would achieve impressive mileage. However, after only about 2 miles of driving, this cycle would completely drain the batter forcing the engine to turn on and recharge it, dropping the batter from my “MAX” (i.e.no gas used) to something more pedestrian. The sad truth is that gas-electric hybrids have only 30 to 40 percent efficiency. That means that the regenerative braking only captures about 30% of the energy that the car exerted to propel itself to the speed, quickly draining the batteries.


Besides the efficiency issue, the Escape’s hybrid system was surprisingly easy to live with. The engine starts usually came when we expected them (rapid acceleration, cruising at high speeds), the engine was shut off when we would expect it (cruising, braking, being at a stop), and the CVT kept the little four-cylinder engine humming nicely at 1,500 to 2,500 rpm using the electric motor for additional torque. There were some unusual noises – a little bit of whine when braking, the complete silence of the EV mode, or the little harsh sound of the Atkinson-cycle engine, but nothing of this was the least bit disturbing or disruptive. However, if you need to tow, the Hybrid is not for you; the Escape hybrid is not recommended for any towing. Indeed, GM’s new two-mode hybrid system is the only hybrid system on the market that retains towing ability.

The only negative comment we have about the hybrid is the braking system. The brakes are plenty powerful, but they are very much annoying. Unlike in a regular car, where your push on the brake pedal is almost directly connected to the hydraulics of the brakes system, on a hybrid you are simply telling the computer to apply brakes, recharge the batteries, or any combination of the above. As a result your push on the brake pedal in a hybrid does not translate well or consistently into the braking force. The Escape’s brake pedal was hard to press, and annoyingly varying in brake force. Luckily, Ford announced the 2009 Escape will get a new, more natural-feeling braking system (see the end of the article for more details on 2009 Escape changes).

Overall, however we were very impressed with the Hybrid power train. The car drove like a true hybrid in the city, saving gas when stopped and accelerating, but behaved like a regular car when at higher speeds or on a highway. The braking was annoying, but not dangerous, and the car makes up for it with perfectly acceptable acceleration and a meaningful mileage increase. All this is worth the measly $1,000 price increase over a comparable non-Hybrid Escape.

The Ride

The Escape’s ride lacked the wagon qualities of the Taurus X, but it definitely exemplified the reasons why crossovers rule the sales charts – it felt planted on the road, light on its feet, and stable at speed – all the qualities that traditional body-on-frame SUV’s lack.

The car absorbed potholes and other road challenges with composure. It never felt rattled and the interior remained quiet as well. While only few people know (or care), the Escape’s structure is designed to be quite a bit tougher than other small utilities like the Nissan Rouge, Toyota Rav-4, or Honda CR-V. While we never took the car off road, we had to drive through some quite rough road construction zone and the tough Escape shined. Driving over curb-deep holes, and other uneven pavement, proved that Ford did not just build a tall car with the Escape, it built a mini SUV. In curves the Escape never wallowed and never felt heavy despite the added weight of the batteries. On a highway it was quiet and stable; much more so than we expected given the car’s short (103”) wheelbase and tall stance.

The Exterior

The exterior of the 2008 Escape is quite unusual for the small crossover segment. Practically all of the Escape’s competitors moved away from SUV look to a more “tall car” design, but the Escape has retained its original mini-SUV looks. It is probably a matter of taste whether this look resonates with you, but there is nothing outdated, ugly, or bland (not any more than the competitors), about the Escape. The lack of styling quirks results in comfortably mainstream looks from the outside, good space for all positions on the inside, and good visibility in all directions.

The Interior

Up to this point, we sang unconditional praise for the Escape, but unfortunately that praise stops here. The interior looks just fine at first glance, but upon prolonged use, it becomes obvious that it is the proverbial Achilles heel of this otherwise very competent little car.

The design of the interior is pleasing enough, carrying over the rugged truck theme from the exterior. The dash is tall and shallow opening up the interior space, and while it is made almost completely out of hard plastics it was well assembled. However, overall the feel was bare bones, not only compared to the Taurus X, but also to its competitors like the new 2009 Subaru Forester, the Vue or the CR-V. The ultimate downfall of the interior was its lack of attention to detail and the overall dressed-down, cheap nature.

The first problem we noticed was that the driver’s power seat controls are located too far back and in a space too narrow for comfortable reach. The step-up to the seat is also a little tall without the optional running-boards, and we had a little trouble finding comfortable driving position as the Escape’s steering wheel does not telescope and the pedals are not adjustable. The steering wheel also lacked audio controls; it seems they are available through some package or option, but we would expect them standard on any car above $25,000.

The Escape features Ford’s all new switch gear with combined read-out on the top of the dash similar to the new 2008 Focus. The new controls are very well designed, easily learned and have very good tactile qualities. The feel more expensive than Ford controls in the Taurus X and other older Fords. The top-dash display is a nice addition to Ford’s interiors. The dash displays the heating/air conditioning information as well as your audio information. However, with the navigation, the audio information is shown on the navigation screen, leaving the top-dash display underutilized with only time and date information.

The one thing Ford did wrong with the interior was lack of chrome or other “dress up.” There is no chrome on the controls, vents or interior door handles. The non-hybrid Escape is available with more chrome accents and it helps the interior feel significantly more upscale. To make matters worse, the Escape Hybrid can only be had with beige interior, while black, gray or even an attractive charcoal-brick combination are available on the non-hybrid Escape. While we are sure there are many customers who find black interiors too dark and prefer the airiness of light interiors, Melissa and I are not one of those customers. Once again, we felt the Escape Hybrid’s interior was unfit for a car costing $30,000, and were truly puzzled why Ford dressed down the most expensive model.

Another problem was with the navigation system. Starting with the 2008 models, Ford installed a new navigation system to its models introducing updated routing logic, maps, text-to-speech (street name readout) and voice commands. All Fords switched to this new system last summer; all but the Escape that is. While on the outside only the lack of chrome accents reveals this fact, the confusing routing and robotic, almost incomprehensible street name readout make the age of the system hard to miss. While we were impressed with the new system in the Taurus X, the old system in the Escape left us disappointed. The Escape was significantly redesigned for the 2008 model year, so it is baffling why Ford did not use the new and superior navigation system in this car. The Escape Hybrid (or the regular Escape for that matter) is not available with the SYNC system either, but Ford plans to remedy that with the 2009 model coming out this summer.

The rear occupants have plenty of space, but not that many features. There is no heating/air conditioning controls, no armrest, the seats to not slide or recline, and there is no rear-seat DVD system available. Many of these features are available from the Escape’s competitors and once again make the interior feel cheaper than is needed. To add, the headrests on the rear seats are placed too far back and uncomfortable to use. The headrests are also too bulky and reduce rearward visibility.

The cargo space is quite large, and while there are no tie-downs or other helpful features, the rear windshield does open independently and even opens remotely from the key fob. The rear seats fold flat, but require the cushion flipped forward and headrests removed. The regular Escape features a nice under-floor tray and wet trunk, but this space is taken up by the battery in the Hybrid. Smartly, however, the spare is accessed from the bottom, and was not sacrificed to make space for the battery.

The Verdict

The Escape is far from a bad car, it drives well, has a competitive set of features and price, is reliable, and safe. However the otherwise competent car is let down by an interior that seems much less thought out than its competitors’. We are still stunned by Ford’s bad decisions with the Escape and the Escape Hybrid. The lack of attention to detail plagues the interior, and the reasoning behind Ford’s decisions to dress down the interior of the top-priced model simply escapes us. No pun intended, of course.

In the middle of the week with the Escape Hybrid we happened upon a new 2009 Subaru Forrester, and its better interior became immediately apparent. Similarly, the Saturn Vue and Honda CR-V have better and better thought-out interiors. However, there is one thing these other competitors lack – a hybrid version. No matter how mediocre the Escape’s interior might be, only the Vue offers a hybrid competition, and many hybrid shoppers will notice (and mind) that the Vue Greenline is a “mild hybrid” offering significantly lower city mileage (the Vue Greenline is rated at 25 mpg in the city and 32 mpg on the highway). Despite this lower mileage, and extra $1,000 in price, we feel it is still a better all-around package. The Vue delivers the best-in-class interior, comfortable reclining rear seats, and innovative cargo management system, and despite the lower mileage, we would recommend it over the Escape Hybrid. After all, if one truly wants the best city mileage, buying a hybrid SUV is simply silly – a hybrid car will be a much better fit.

Post Script: Changes for the 2009 Model

As mentioned in the review, the Escape and Escape Hybrid will receive some changes this summer for the 2009 model year. The non-hybrid Escape will receive a new 2.5l four cylinder engine and an updated 3.0l V6 engine delivering more power and better economy. Unlike the current models, which use four-speed automatic transmissions, the new models will exclusively use more efficient six-speed gearboxes. The hybrid will also receive this new 2.5l engine replacing the 2.3l engine. Like with the other versions, this new engine is more powerful and more efficient. The Hybrid will also receive new brakes that promise better, more natural operation. The Hybrid will also finally be available with stability control program. Finally, the Escape and Escape hybrid will now be available with the SYNC system. All these changes are welcome and make the 2009 models meaningfully better than the current models and worth the couple-months wait. However, these changes do not address the fundamental issues we had with the attention to detail in the interior.

For more images go HERE

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Author: Brendan Moore

Brendan Moore is a Principal Consultant with Cedar Point Consulting , a management consulting practice based in the Washington, DC area. He also manages Autosavant Consulting, a separate practice within Cedar Point Consulting. where he advises businesses connected to the auto industry. Cedar Point Consulting can be found at http://www.cedarpointconsulting.com.

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7 Comments

  1. My sister looked at both the Vue hybrid and the Escape. They ended up with the Vue becasue the dealer threw in a GPS navigation system. Within a week she was actively telling anyone who would listen that she wished she had bough the Ford instead.

    As for chrome accents. I hate chrome on the interior or a car. I drove a rental Altima from Phoenix to Tucson, with the AZ sun reflecting off the chrome bezels you could not read a single gauge.

  2. If the Escape Hybrid is your thing, order now for the 2009 model year. It was taking 4 months for factory orders to come in last year, and the 2008 model year build is sold out.

  3. I wonder what a diesel Escape would do in terms of fuel economy? I’m thinking it would be about the same as the hybrid setup in this model.

  4. Ya’ll, that’s an exceedingly well-done and thorough review. That’s some great work.

  5. The better question is what would a diesel hybrid do in terms of fuel economy? That is THE TICKET

  6. I like my 2008 Ford Escape Hybrid with the 4WD option … especially great for winter driving up here in the Canadian Rocky Mountains.

    Awesome fuel economy with a light-footed driver such as myself. Currently averaging 28 MPG despite cold weather and considerable snowfall over the last few months but certain to improve now that spring & summer are just around the corner.

    While I agree that there are other hybrid cars available, only the Escape Hybrid offers the convenience of 4WD/AWD in such an affordable package — unless you have abundantly more $$$$ for the Highlander Hybrid or even the Lexus 400h.

  7. Really, really good review.

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