A sport-utility vehicle (SUV) with a hybrid petrol/electric power train should be about as close as you can get to having your cake and eating it, too. Room for a family, good mileage. But not if it costs so much more to buy than a conventional model that it takes forever to pay for itself in fuel savings.
Happily, that's not the case with Ford's Escape Hybrid. In the right circumstances, and with Uncle Sam's help, it can pay for itself in less than a year.
The Escape that arrived in late 2004 was the first hybrid SUV and soon followed by the mechanically identical Mercury Mariner and, later, the Toyota Highlander hybrid, the Lexus RX hybrid and, finally, the Saturn Vue hybrid.
One drawback in the Escape you see quickly on the road is the added weight of the hybrid power train (more than 113 kilograms over even the V-6 Escape). That affects handling, which is worsened by the new electric power steering that's a must in a hybrid. The hybrid's "lower rolling resistance" tyres deliver a harsh ride.
Still, if you feel strongly about driving "green" and are willing to sacrifice a little in handling and ride, an Escape Hybrid is worth a look.
It consumes 6.92 litres per 100 kilometres in city driving and 7.84 on the highway, with the Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) estimate based on purportedly more realistic methodology effective for 2008 models.
By comparison, the conventional four-cylinder Escape is estimated to consume 11.76 litres per 100km city/9 highway with automatic transmission, while the 200-horsepower, V-6 model won't do any better than 13 and 9.8, respectively, the EPA says.
The Escape Hybrid has been in dealerships since late February, at base prices beginning at US$25,740 (Bt864,000) with freight and front-wheel drive and $27,490 with all-wheel drive.
Most of the price premium for the front-drive hybrid model over the V-6 model is made up for by a $3,000 federal tax credit. But the credit is only $2,200 for the all-wheel-drive hybrid Escape.
The non-hybrid Escapes get a conventional four-speed automatic, while the hybrid gets a stepless, or "continuously variable", automatic, which employs belts and pulleys to, it is said, deliver superior fuel economy by allowing the engine to spend more time at its most efficient revolutions per minute.
The hybrid's petrol engine is the same 2.3-litre four-cylinder as in the base Escape, making 133hp in this application. Supplementing it to raise total horsepower to 155 is an electric motor. As in some other hybrids, the electric motor in the Escape propels the car by itself at low speeds, under 40kph; that's why fuel economy is higher in local driving than on the highway, unlike conventional cars. Also, the Escape's petrol engine shuts off at stoplights - or even in the briefest stop at a stop sign. It restarts when the driver releases the brake and steps on the accelerator.
Once the vehicle is moving, the electric motor can jump in any time to help the petrol engine, such as in ascending a hill or passing another vehicle. It occurs imperceptibly to the driver - even more so than last year, Ford says, thanks to revisions of the control system's software. The batteries that power the electric motor are recharged by a generator powered by the petrol engine and recapturing as electricity some of the energy of braking that normally dissipates as heat.
When the engine is off, the special nickel metal-hydride battery pack keeps sending power to the electric steering and power brakes, so the driver feels no difference in either. Unfortunately, the engine-belt-driven air-conditioning compressor stops turning when the engine shuts down. So when the vehicle is stopped on a hot day, the cabin can get uncomfortable quickly.
The driver can override that by pressing the "Max AC" button to keep the petrol engine and compressor running, but that will reduce fuel economy. (The Prius' air-conditioner compressor is electric and stays on even when the petrol engine shuts off.)
Except for the aforementioned momentary delay, acceleration is brisk enough to satisfy most drivers.
Overall, hybrid or conventional, the new Escape is a generally pleasant and practical vehicle - as was the old one, which had long been the best-selling compact SUV in the US.
Key dimensions - wheelbase, overall length and width, head- and leg-room - are virtually unchanged.
I could quibble with an interior that has too many different colour shades and too many seams.
Generally, though, everything you want in a family vehicle is there: comfortable and supportive seats; clear, blue-lit gauges; self-explanatory and (mostly) well-located controls; a back seat with lots of leg-room; reasonable luggage space behind the second seat; storage pockets; and a deep centre console.
Of some concern, though, is the 2008 Escape's driver's-seat frontal-crash test rating from the government: three out of five stars. "We're disappointed and considering our next steps," a Ford spokeswoman responded in an e-mail.
Distributed by the Los Angeles Times-Washington Post News Service.
Engine/motor: 2.3-litre, four-cylinder/330-volt, combined 155hp
Torque, petrol engine: 124 pound-feet at 2,250rpm
Transmission: continuously variable automatic, front-wheel drive
Safety: dual front, seat-mounted side and curtain-type air bags; four-wheel disc brakes with anti-lock; tyre-pressure monitoring; fog lamps
Place of assembly: Claycomo, Missouri
Cargo room, rear seatbacks up/down, cubic metres: 0.79/1.87
EPA fuel-economy estimates: 6.92 litres per 100km city; 7.84 highway
Price as driven: US$29,825
(Bt1 million), including destination charge.
The Luxury LS 460 is a wonderfully comfaortable car fitted with all mod cons, althoough not necessarily the most fun vehicle to drive.