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Test Drive: Escape's hybrid version a winner



Ford Motor updated its Escape small SUV, and while it is considerably gentrified compared with its predecessor, it seems insufficiently improved to keep up with rivals.

For 2008, the Escape, a pioneer among carlike SUVs and third-best-selling SUV in the country, is quieter, smoother, uglier outside and possibly inside, burdened by long-in-the-tooth gasoline drivetrains, but continues to offer one of the industry's best gasoline-electric hybrid powertrains.

Short version: If you're looking for a small SUV, there are better ones. If you want a small hybrid SUV, or a small hybrid of any kind with all-wheel drive or SUV-type utility, there aren't.

One of the test vehicles, a $31,000 gasoline V-6 Escape Limited with all-wheel drive, makes the point well.

The engine remains loud and coarse. The automatic transmission continues to have only four speeds, while rivals boast five for better mileage, acceleration and smoother operation. And the vehicle lacks useful details such as sliding rear seats, as you get in the Honda CR-V and Toyota RAV4. The sliding seats in those models gives them 3 inches more rear legroom — important if you tote teens or adults back there.

Besides the fact it's begun to seem outdated vs. the competition, the '08 Escape demonstrates that, in appearance, Ford again has mistaken clutter, confusion and chrome for class. Hallmarks of the exterior:

•Big, ugly grille that Ford will chrome completely instead of partly for extra bucks. Better you should buy the pricey Limited version to get a body-color grille, camouflaging the dreadful thing.

•Gratuitous buboes along the rocker panels, making bumpy what should be smooth.

Looks more masculine, more outdoorsy, than the otherwise similar Mercury Mariner and the Mazda Tribute, says Eric Loeffler, chief engineer for the Escape and Escape hybrid. Seems to work. Women buy Mercury, men buy Ford. Who's to argue with success?

Inside:

•Big, redesigned instrument panel and dashboard, emulating the F-150 pickup. Overdone; bad.

•Narrow, feels cramped vs. RAV4 and CR-V. Bad.

•New ice-blue lighting for the instruments. Delectable; good.

•Thicker windows, more insulation. Quieter; good.

•Moved, improved climate-control and seat-heat switches. Good.

•Upholstery from recycled plastic fibers. Better-looking than it sounds, and quite comfy. Could save 7 million kilowatt hours vs. processing virgin fibers, Ford says. All good.

Mechanically, there are some sad stories. There's that raucous V-6, the unsatisfying four-speed automatic (five- or six-speed is coming, but Loeffler won't say when), and a brake downgrade, to old-fashioned drums in back instead of discs, as on the front wheels. (The hybrid retains discs at all four wheels, another reason to favor it over the gasoline versions.)

RAV4 and CR-V, the two top-selling SUVs, both use discs on all four wheels.

On the plus side, the suspension handled bumps and corners with nonchalance.

The hybrid's brakes are the worst-feeling on the road, if the hybrid test vehicle was representative. They felt as if you were stuffing your foot into a bellows that had to be compressed before you got any deceleration. And what you eventually got didn't seem strong.

The brakes, changed from the '07 Escape hybrid, have resulted in "a 30% improvement in 'I don't quite like it' comments" from customers, says Nancy Gioia, Ford engineer who's — ready? — director for sustainable mobility technology and hybrid vehicle programs. If it has to do with unconventional power, the buck stops with her.

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All in all a bitter sweet article...

I do agree on the criticism about the V6 and the 4-speed transmission, that is unforgivable. Rear drum brakes . . . ditto.

Criticism about the new interior is totally subjective. I love it and works really well, especially with the optional navigation system.

In any case, the Ford Escape needs a replacement soon. Could it come via Ford X-MAX? One can only hope . . .
 
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