Braking Away

Mountain Life
Mountain Life 1104

Where do you plug it in?"

It's a question that you'll hear so often on the street that, though at first cute, it quickly becomes vexing. Part of the fun of driving a hybrid is the rub-off cool of being "green," but after the 15th time I'm asked about plugging in my Ford Escape Hybrid, I consider duct taping over the Hybrid badging, which incorporates a green leaf. The swift response, which you'll get good at, is, "No plug. It recharges automatically by capturing energy from braking." Such is the price to pay for being the cool kid on the block.

The Escape is the first-ever SUV gas/electric hybrid. It's powered by both a 2.3-liter, four-cylinder gas engine with 133 horsepower and an electric drive system with 93 horsepower. It's a "full" hybrid, which means it can run either with both drive systems working in tandem or with the electric motor alone (at low speeds, using no gas at all). It's the SUV for anti-SUV types-or for anyone who's sick of dropping rent-sized denominations at the fuel pump. Even the nonhybrid version of the Escape is a gas miser in comparison to the big guys, so the crossbreed should be a winner. But is the new technology truly ready for prime time? After all, saving a couple dollars is small consolation if you can't get to the mountain on a powder day.

First, I spent several days driving the Escape in the city. It looks like the regular Escape, a cute little sport-ute with a bit too much body cladding-perhaps in an attempt to mask its small stature. (A Detroit Napoleon complex?) When I turned it on, the information gauge told me I had 400 miles until its tank was empty. We'll see, I thought. Then I got confused. I hadn't started it. I twisted the ignition again. No, in fact it was on. Just completely, utterly silent. Unless you accelerate quickly, the gas engine shuts off. It also cuts out at stoplights or any time you're traveling at speeds under 25 mph. In other words, whenever possible, you're only using self-generated electric energy. The kicker is that the transition between power sources is quick and quiet. When you need get-up-and-go-a bus is bearing down on you, for instance-the gas engine kicks on in less than half a second. In fact, the transition between the engines is so seamless that I wouldn't have known which one I was using, were it not for the sound of the gas engine. While driving in the city, you actually get better gas mileage than on the highway-up to 70 percent more than a nonhybrid Escape. Ford says you'll get around 500 miles a tank.

Nor will you be financially penalized up front for your environmental altruism. The base price of the 4WD Hybrid is $28,595-not bad in comparison with the regular V-6 4WD, which runs $24,500. My major complaint, though, is one of simple physics. The Escape's wheelbase is 103.1 inches; its height, 70.4 inches. When you hit the brakes hard, the entire front end pitches forward like a fish gulping water. It's simply too high and short to have any sense of balance, which makes for a rather unpleasant ride. Every time I hit the brakes to avoid rear-ending a New York taxi, my buddy and I would lurch forward, and he'd exclaim, "Hey, it's OK: You're capturing energy through regenerative braking!" True enough.

Around the city, the gauge barely nudged off its full status. (In fact, on one unseasonably hot day, I rolled down the windows and turned the air conditioner on full, just to feel a little of the irresponsible thrum of driving an SUV.) But I wanted to get it off city streets and into the mountains, so I headed to the Catskills for a day of late-fall hiking. With the rear seat folded down, the Escape has 65 cubic feet-enough for my hiking stuff, though skis would probably require the use of a roof rack or box. Then I got on the highway. Ford says the gas and electric engines' combined power is 155 horsepower. I got into some steeply graded hills, and while the Escape doesn't exactly lope up them, it doesn't chug-a-lug eitherr. Acceptable, if not rip-roaring. Off-road, the optional 4WD system engages "intelligently"-meaning only when the car senses slippage. (Earlier I'd searched futilely for the "engage" control: It's unsettling when your automobile is so much smarter than you.) On the way home that evening, after a day of hearty hiking (powered by Gatorade and energy bars, thank you), I looked at the gauge. Half a tank. What the hell. I turned up the air conditioner and rolled down the windows.