Hybrid Spotters Guide by Carol Traeger
Hybrid vehicles have arrived — and just wait ’til you see what’s coming next.
Is it a fad or the shape of things to come? So far, hybrid-electric technology has drawn more ink than sales, but under increasing pressure to go “green,” automakers are getting ready to roll out a wave of high-mileage HEVs.
Ford’s first will hit the road next summer, when production begins on the Escape HEV, a gasoline-electric version of the automaker’s compact crossover. It’s “one of the five most important product programs we have,” says Phil Martens, who heads North American product development for the number two automaker.
While company officials admit they’ll have to subsidize the Escape hybrid program, they also bill it as a sort of real-world learning experience, one that could have dramatic impact on the shape of Ford’s future product lineup.
A basic primer is probably in order here. Hybrid-electric vehicles, or HEVs, combine at least two separate sources of power, most commonly a gasoline engine and an electric motor. But all HEVs aren’t the same.
The first hybrid to reach the U.S. was the teardrop-shaped Honda Insight, a so-called “mild” hybrid. Like other HEVs, the Insight can recapture energy normally lost during braking or coasting, converting it to electricity and storing it in a battery. When a driver steps down hard on Insight’s accelerator, that energy is used to drive an electric motor, adding some kick to the Insight’s minuscule 1.3-liter gasoline engine.
Then there’s the Toyota approach. Its Prius sedan starts out like Insight, recapturing energy normally lost, but Toyota adds an additional feature. The Prius also can operate in electric-only mode, especially when driven around town or in traffic at low speeds.
The Escape follows Toyota’s model, meaning it can operate solely on gasoline power, in combined gas/electric mode, or as a pure EV.
When Ford first announced the project a couple of years back, it promised the hybrid would deliver the performance of the V-6 Escape while being as miserly with fuel as the smaller in-line four version. The automaker is maintaining that position as it begins pilot production. “The customer will give up nothing from the base Escape with this vehicle,” declares Mary Ann Wright, who was put in charge of the project last year.
That was a bold promise, especially when the project was in the early, conceptual stage, considering Ford had no experience with hybrids, and only modest knowledge about pure electric vehicles. The automaker considered the option of sourcing hybrid technology from outside — the approach Nissan is taking. The Japanese maker has formed a joint venture giving it access to Toyota’s HEV hardware. But if hybrids do become part of the mainstream in years to come, Ford reasoned it needed to learn the basics on its own, even if that put it a bit behind its competition.
Indeed, when the 2005 Escape HEV rolls out next year, Ford will be more than four years behind Honda, which introduced the Insight in 2000, and Toyota, which has already launched its second-generation Prius. But Ford officials are quick to insist it’s not behind schedule. Check the archives and you’ll find Chairman Bill Ford promising the first hybrid would hit the road by the end of 2003. Well, true, says Martens, but that was always going to be a pilot vehicle. Sales to the public, he insists, were always intended to begin with the 2005 model year.
Driving it home
Give Ford the benefit of the doubt for not rushing to market. Journalists were given an off-the-record test drive some of those early prototypes late last month. And while TheCarConnection can’t discuss its own experiences, Wright offers insight of her own that one can consider quite on the mark.
Like other HEVs, Escape has a start/stop mode, meaning its gasoline engine actually shuts down when you’re idling in traffic or at a stoplight. It’s so subtle, you won’t even notice, but Wright’s team is still working to smooth things out when the engine automatically starts back up. They’re also working to create a more natural brake pedal feel. That’s more complicated than it might seem, because an HEV does a lot when you brake. It has to integrate regular friction brakes with the system designed to recapture energy and generate electricity.
The technical basics of the Escape HEV start with a 2.3-liter in-line four engine modified to run on what’s
Escape HEV EngineEnlarge Photo
Since development work is far from complete, final mileage numbers are still a few months away, but initial indications are that the front-wheel-drive Escape HEV will get between 35 and 40 mpg in the EPA’s City cycle, 29 to 31 in the Highway cycle. That may seem inverted, but it reflects the fact that hybrids get their best mileage in the stop-start driving of urban roadways. The all-wheel-drive Escape HEV should deliver 31 to 34 mpg City, 26 to 28 Highway. For comparison, the 2004 Escape with a standard V-6 is rated 19/25 City/Highway with front-drive, and 18/23 with all-wheel drive.
The HEV, incidentally, maintains the 1000-pound towing capacity of the base in-line four Escape. The Prius and Honda’s two hybrids are not rated for towing.
Like the Prius, the Escape HEV features a video display instantly illustrating the particular mode the vehicle is operating in. If the Prius is any example, that can be distracting until you’re used to the feature. But it has also helped Toyota drivers figure out the best ways to maximize fuel economy.
Since there’s already a video screen, by the way, Ford has decided to make available a navigation system for the Escape HEV. It will be the only version of the crossover ute with this optional feature.
Modular and portable
Escape HEV Battery PackEnlarge Photo
Translation: it can be tweaked to fit into just about any vehicle that can use the basic 2.3-liter in-line four. Look for the technology to show up next in the Futura sedan, one of several vehicles Ford will use to replace the aging Taurus sedan.
Beyond that? During October’s Tokyo Motor Show, Toyota officials suggested they may make hybrid powertrains available, at least as an option, on virtually all future products.
“That’s not our goal,” at Ford, cautions Martens, adding his belief that “it’s not necessary.”
Ford’s caution is understandable. No one is really sure what sort of market there is for HEV technology. It’s so modest right now that automakers must supplement the cost, and Ford is no exception. Wright confirms the automaker will not require Escape HEV buyers to pay the full premium they would for more conventional technology. Industry analysts are betting on a final price around $3000 over the V-6 Escape.
Should a real market emerge, the plug-and-play design of Ford’s HEV system would help in a rapid expansion of hybrid offerings, though Martens believes there will always be some products, such as the Mustang, for which hybrid technology won’t ever make sense.