To the rescue

Los Angeles Times Staff Writer

I anthropomorphize cars. I can’t help it. Some overly empathetic fold in my brain wants to make a steel-and-glass thing into a character, a persona, an avatar, a material semblance of the people and the company that built it. If you’ve walked through as many car factories as I have, you won’t forget that behind even the most unlovely and unloved vehicle there are 1,000 people pulling their guts out to make it great, and trying to keep their jobs besides. For a critic, all this is supposed to be inadmissible evidence -- what matters is the thing itself -- and yet, I’d have to be made of stone not to register the desperate circumstances from which some vehicles emerge.

I cry at puppy shows. I am not made of stone.

The redesigned 2008 Ford Escape now arriving in showrooms is not all it could have been. In the fastest-growing, most competitive segment in the market -- that is, small SUVs/crossovers, including this-minute designs like the Toyota RAV4, Mazda CX-7, Hyundai Santa Fe, Honda CR-V and the coming-soon Saturn Vue -- the Escape gets by with an exterior and interior remodeling, a fluffing of the equipment list, a slightly lower base price and bigger wheels. The powertrains and chassis bits remain fundamentally the same as when the Escape debuted six years ago.

Since then, the Escape has sold more than 1 million copies (that’s the good news) but in those same years Ford Motor Co. has taken it in the neck, brutalized by rising gas prices and steep declines in sales of its cash livestock -- full-size SUVs and trucks. In the shadow of a $12-billion loss in 2006 and a traumatic restructuring of its North American operations, Ford is in pretty sorry shape.

Inevitably, these travails have put a crimp in product development, and nowhere is that clearer than in the Ford Escape Hybrid. Three years ago when the gas-sipping variant debuted, I was assured by the powertrain engineers that -- though the first generation shared patents and similar architecture with Toyota’s Hybrid Synergy Drive (Prius) -- the next generation would be more aggressively efficient and more distinctively Ford’s own. That didn’t happen, and I can only attribute that to an R&D dollar deficit.

And yet -- here’s where the anthropomorphizing comes in -- the Escape Hybrid puts up a heroic fight against these lowered expectations. This is a likable, even lovable, little truck, one of the few SUVs that combine a decent ability to reach the great outdoors with some demonstrable concern for it. The Escape Hybrid is the most fuel-efficient SUV (or Compact Utility Vehicle, CUV) out there, with a combined EPA rating of 32 miles per gallon (with front-wheel drive) and 28 mpg (all-wheel drive). That translates to about a 30% advantage over the class as a whole. Depending on how you configure your personal values, that kind of advantage will likely trump whatever slights of refinement and elegance there might be.

Meanwhile, if sentiment doesn’t convince you, perhaps hard cold cash will do the trick. Because Ford, unlike Toyota, has yet to reach the hybrid tax credit sales threshold of 60,000 vehicles, Escape Hybrid buyers can get a maximum $3,000 federal tax credit (on FWD models) and $2,200(on AWDs). California buyers also enjoy the vehicle’s extended warranty: 10 years or 150,000 miles on the nickel metal-hydride battery.

And -- though I realize I might be the last living soul to care about these things -- the Escape also has excellent ground clearance (8.6 inches with AWD, second only to the Jeep Liberty) and respectable approach and departure angles. For me, the Escape Hybrid squares a circle that bedevils SUVs generally. If you, Mr. Nissan Pathfinder, bristling with kayaks and carbon-fiber mountain bikes, love nature so much, how come your truck only gets 18 miles per gallon?

Ford’s designers turned up the machismo on the Escape, burnishing it with the same outdoorsy flannel as the Explorer and Expedition. The higher beltline, level hood line, oversized wheel wells, blacked-out B-pillar, serrated rocker panels and bluff grill -- now with chrome orthodontia like the Explorer -- all give the Escape a grittier, all-terrain mien. Roof racks, 16-inch cast-aluminum wheels, fog lights and smoked-out windows are standard on the Hybrid. The redesigned Escape bears a passing resemblance to Land Rover’s upcoming LR2 (integrated front bumper clip, overall profile), but this cannot be a bad thing, except in aerodynamics.

The interior has likewise been given a corporate makeover. The soft lines and jelly-like buttons have been replaced by the strict, orthogonal design of the central console and Ford’s tile-like switchgear. The LCD (nav/audio) screen, so small as to be unusable in the previous model, is larger and friendlier. On the top of the dash is a small LED info screen for climate/ambient/audio readout. That’s new.

With its two-tone color scheme, richer neoprene-like surfaces, pistol-grip shifter and ice-blue instrument lighting, the Escape’s interior represents a timely improvement over the 2007 model, though weighed against the competition, it still feels victimized by cost-cutting.

Ergonomically, though, the Escape cabin is spot on. The seats are comfortable and supportive, the outward views commanding. The rear seats are family- and car-seat-friendly. (And eco-friendly: According to Ford, the Escape is the first vehicle to use 100% recycled materials for its cloth seats.) Little betrays the hybrid-ness of the Escape Hybrid except the loss of a couple of cubic feet of cargo space behind the rear seat due to the placement of the 330-volt battery.

For 2008, the “strong” hybrid hardware remains virtually unchanged. The engine is a 2.3-liter inline four-cylinder, Atkinson-cycle engine producing 133 hp at 6,000 rpm. Under 25 miles per hour and depending on demand, the Escape Hybrid can glide along Flying Dutchman-style on its 94 hp (70 kW) electric motor. Put both power plants online through the Escape’s planetary gearset transmission and they make a net 155 hp, enough to spirit the car to 60 mph in less than 10 seconds with a minor symphony of hums, warbles and burrs. The AWD-equipped Escape Hybrid pays a weight penalty of 324 pounds compared to the gas-powered model, and you can definitely feel it in acceleration or high-speed cornering.

Denied the chance to clean-sheet the vehicle, Ford focused on smaller refinements. The vehicle is loaded up with sound-deadening materials (thicker carpet, acoustic-laminate windshield glass) that make the Escape noticeably quieter -- 15% quieter, says Ford.

The Hybrid’s engineers also recoded the engine-transmission software to smooth out transitions between electric and gas power plants.

Curiously -- and inexplicably, as far as I’m concerned -- the gas-powered Escape has reverted to rear drum brakes. Fortunately, the Hybrid still uses rear disc brakes, and the brake performance is quite good, even if the pedal is a little touchy. Meanwhile, the Hybrid’s all-electric power steering unit has migrated to the gas-powered models. Unfortunately, the Escape Hybrid doesn’t have an all-electric air-conditioning system; for the A/C to stay on, the gas engine has to be kept running.

While we’re surveying the equipment list, it’s worth noting that Ford’s Roll Stability Control -- now standard on gas models -- isn’t available on the Hybrid, due to an incompatibility with the regenerative braking electronics. I hope Ford’s pocket-protector squad sorts that out soon.

Plucky, over-achieving if under-funded, better than it ought to be but not quite as good as it might have been, the Escape Hybrid runs on gas, electricity and no small amount of charisma. Considering how up against it Ford is these days, it’s hard to see this SUV as anything short of a triumph. The irony is that this is just the sort of vehicle that can ultimately save Ford.

2008 Ford Escape Hybrid AWD

Base price: $25,740

Price, as tested: $32,000 (est.)

Powertrain: 2.3-liter, inline four-cylinder, Atkinson-cycle engine; continuously variable transmission; 70-kW permanent-magnet AC synchronous electric motor; 330-volt nickel-metal-hydride battery; all-wheel drive.

Horsepower: 155 hp at 6,000 rpm (net)

Curb weight: 3,794 pounds

0-60 mph: under 10 seconds

Wheelbase: 103.1 inches

Overall length: 174.7 inches

EPA fuel economy: 29 miles per gallon city; 27 mpg highway

Final thoughts: Ford puts on its rally cap