Finally, a hybrid for the family

It's not quite as revolutionary as the Model T Ford. But the first hybrid electric vehicle produced by Henry Ford's company will break ground just the same.

Ford has introduced the first hybrid SUV to the market. The hybrid Escape represents the first fuel-efficient vehicle big enough to meet the space requirements of mainstream American families.

It's also surprisingly affordable for a first-of-its-kind SUV.

While Lexus plans to introduce its own hybrid SUV next spring - the 400h, a derivative of its popular RX330 - it's expected to retail at nearly $50,000 for a base model. The hybrid Escape should prove much more popular at $27,000.

As with conventional Escapes, the hybrid version sits high off the ground, offering drivers and passengers better visibility, plenty of room, ease of entry and exit, and optional all-wheel-drive.

In fact, the hybrid looks almost identical to conventional Escapes, down to the cheap plastic on the dashboard. It's among the largest of small SUVs and about the size of the original Ford Explorer inside. The big difference, of course, is mileage.

While the original Explorer barely got 15 miles per gallon and most Escapes get about 17 m.p.g., the Escape hybrid is rated at 29 m.p.g. on the highway and 33 m.p.g. in the city.

That may not be enough for California Gov. Arnold Schwarzenegger, who is expected to sign legislation allowing hybrids to use the state's carpool lanes, even with only the driver onboard, as long as they get at least 45 m.p.g. But it's a huge improvement over most SUVs.

The Escape uses much the same technology that Toyota does with its popular Prius. For its hybrid, Ford modified the engine of its base four-cylinder Escape to be more efficient and accommodate a large electric motor. The combination delivers about 200 horsepower, on par with the conventional V6 Escape.

On the road, the hybrid feels just as powerful as the familiar V6. It even sounds as noisy when in gear - an annoying feature of the V6. The difference is when you come to a stop.

Like the Prius, the Escape hybrid shuts down its gasoline engine when it's not needed. The awesome silence is eerie at first, but it also gives you a smug feeling that you're taking better care of the planet than those around you.

Like other hybrids, the Escape starts from a stop on its electric motor. So there's a strange disconnect when you step on the accelerator. There's no roar of the engine. But it's easy to get used to.

The nickel-metal-hydride batteries under the rear cargo floor take up no noticeable storage space, and there's still room for a spare tire under the car. The Escape recharges the batteries automatically when it's braking as well as when its gasoline engine is running.

The battery pack, which would cost about $4,000 to replace, is under warranty for eight years or 100,000 miles. Ford expects prices to come down significantly within those eight years.

Before stepping into the Escape hybrid, I had worried that it would sound noisier and harsher and feel slower than conventional Escapes. Those fears proved unfounded. Although the engine noise remains noticeable, such complaints haven't stopped other Escapes from becoming the most popular small SUV on the road.

For those environmentally conscious drivers who bought a Prius as a second car, there's now a way to replace the gas hog that's parked next to it in the garage.

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