HOT SPRINGS NATIONAL PARK, Ark. -- On the meandering Central Avenue, which follows the floor of a deep-cut valley in the spa city of Hot Springs, a five-door crossover utility vehicle for the compact class darts through the traffic of so many tourists who flock to this resort in the pine-covered Ouachita Mountains of Arkansas.
Not one of the sightseers seems to notice that the perky CUV moving up the avenue happens to be a new hybrid electric vehicle (HEV) from Ford.
Instead, our CUV simply blends into the street scene, its two-box body shell effectively concealing the radical nature of the mechanical systems which motivate it.
What makes this vehicle so unusual?
Well, anyone who pops the hood and peers into the engine compartment will find not one but two motors aboard.
There's a new fuel-efficient 2.5-liter four-cylinder engine that sips gasoline plus a battery-powered electric traction motor of permanent-magnet design.
The electric motor is capable of propelling the wagon by itself, or it can work in concert with the gasoline engine to deliver a power boost like the kick of a V6.
Ford adds an electronic control module to manage all energy produced by the two plants and apply it directly to the front wheels -- or to all four wheels for the optional all-wheel-drive (AWD) version -- in infinitely variable measures through an electronically controlled continuously variable transmission (eCVT).
Virtually silent at start-up with only the electric motor switching on, the Escape Hybrid leaps forward on command with help from the electric motor, which can propel the wagon up to 25 mph.
When more power is needed, a generator cranks up the gasoline engine in only a fraction of a second.
At highway speeds the gas engine does most of the motivating, while in reverse gear it's the electric motor that handles all of the work, and the electric motor also serves as the primary plant in stop-and-go traffic on city streets where a gas engine is inefficient.
Power from the gasoline engine is utilized in two different ways. One portion of this energy is used to turn the wheels, while another portion powers an electric generator that runs the electric motor, which in turn sends the supplemental power to the wheels.
Stomp the accelerator to romp into a passing lane and the electric motor adds an extra boost, yet for such a heavy demand of power the operating energy for the motor comes directly from a bank of on-board batteries.
Internal recharging occurs either during braking, when the gas engine operates as a generator, or when the electric generator does the recharging job. Thus, the Escape Hybrid never needs to be plugged in for recharging as would a purely electric vehicle.
The new four-cylinder gasoline-fired plant, with dual overhead cams and intake variable cam timing (i-VCT) plus modifications for fuel-efficient combustion under the Atkinson-cycle concept, develops 153 hp at 6000 rpm plus torque of 136 lb-ft at 4500 rpm.
The 330-volt electric motor, tied to a nickel-metal hydride battery, kindles power measured in kilowatts, but it's the approximate equivalent of 94 hp at 5000 rpm.
Adding the hybrid technology to Escape produces a CUV which earns uncommonly high fuel economy numbers but also dramatically pared tailpipe emissions such as unburned hydrocarbons (HC) and oxides of nitrogen (NOx).
Fuel economy figures rise to 34 mpg for running on city streets, and the reduced emissions qualify the wagon for the stringent Advanced Technology Partial Zero Emissions Vehicle (AT-PZEV) standards.
Actually, Escape Hybrid achieves better fuel efficiency when plowing city streets in start-and-stop traffic rather than when cruising at a swifter pace on a highway. That's because in city traffic with frequent stops the electric motor takes over.
Our own fuel economy test, conducted over a ten-mile loop around Hot Springs, produces a stunningly high number -- 43 mpg. However, we use every trick to conserve fuel, from putting a light touch on the accelerator to coasting down hills and riding the brakes for battery recharging, and we become a nuisance in traffic due to our creep-along pace.
For normal navigation in town traffic or at speed on a freeway, our drive brings lower numbers -- 32 to 35 mpg.
Still, such figures are well above the ratings of an Escape with the conventional four-cylinder engine tied to a six-speed automatic transaxle -- it scores about 20 mpg for city driving and 26 mpg on the road.
Adding optional AWD traction trims the fuel numbers on Escape Hybrid, but not too much (29 mpg city/27 mpg road).
And it's capable of scampering up a steep and rutted trail with sufficient muscle, as we discover on a two-track trace in the Ouachitas west of Hot Springs.
Escape's intelligent AWD traction system, which distributes power between front and rear wheels selectively as conditions warrant, can maintain firm tire grip on pavement or dirt.
The package design for Ford's gas/electric CUV is fresh to forge a bolder, tougher look in a chiseled design with a sloping and stepped front hood, a high beltline and big wheels and tires as emphasized by flared wheel arches.
The blunt new fascia up front contains restyled headlamp clusters which sweep up toward front corners and a new squared-off grille positioned at the center front.
Regarding safety measures for the CUV, front riders have dual two-stage frontal air bags plus seatbelts with load-limiting retractors and buckle pretensioners, while in the rear there are anchors to tether a child's safety seat. Side-impact air bags mounted on outboard front seats and curtain-style air bags concealed in headliners above front and back rows are also on tap as new standard gear.
Equipment promoting active safety includes the quick all-electric power assist steering through a direct rack and pinion system and four-wheel disc brakes tied to an anti-lock brake system (ABS) plus Ford's AdvanceTrac electronic stability control device with Roll Stability Control (RSC).
Ford's hybrid CUV for 2009 contains more upscale appointments in the five-seat cabin, like an information display mounted on top of the dashboard and easy-on-the-eyes Ice Blue lighting washing instruments, console, steering wheel and door switches.
And a new upscale model -- Escape Limited Hybrid -- adds chrome accents and more luxury goods in the cabin.
Pricing for the 2009 Escape Hybrid begins at $29,400 for 2WD or $31,100 for AWD.