First US gas-electric hybrid SUV hits the street

Posted: 17 August 2004

The first Ford gasoline-electric hybrid sports utility vehicle has rolled off the assembly line, picking up praise from labour and some environmental groups for its fuel efficiency and low emissions. But other environmental and human rights groups are challenging Ford to increase the fuel economy of its entire fleet of cars and trucks.

A 2005 Ford Escape Hybrid SUV on a test run. Photo: Ford
A 2005 Ford Escape Hybrid SUV on a test run. Photo: Ford
A 2005 Ford Escape Hybrid SUV on a test run© Ford
The introduction of the Ford Escape Hybrid SUV makes Ford the first US automaker to introduce hybrid-electric technology to the mainstream market, and also the first hybrid to compete in the popular small SUV class.

The Escape Hybrid will achieve between 35 and 40 miles per gallon in stop-and-go city driving, more than a 50 per cent improvement over the standard Escape SUV.

'Protecting the environment'

It will have extremely low emissions, achieving the California Advanced Technology Partially Zero Emission Vehicle (AT-PZEV) standard.

Ford says the Escape Hybrid offers an option for people concerned about the price of gas and about the environment, but who still want the versatility and capability of an SUV.

"They don't want to give them up, and we don't think they should have to," Ford's chief executive officer William Clay Ford Jr. said in a statement.

"The launch of Ford's Escape Hybrid is bringing together two groups - autoworkers and environmentalists - who have not always seen eye-to-eye in the past," said Mike Perry, president of United Auto Workers (UAW) Local 249. "But this partnership is more important now than ever. The introduction of US made hybrids and other fuel-efficient technologies are essential to staying competitive, which will help the industry create and preserve good union jobs while also protecting the environment."

Members of UAW Local 249 will manufacture the Escape Hybrid at the Ford Kansas City Assembly plant, which employs over 5,600 UAW members. "The Escape Hybrid is a winner for both jobs and the environment," said Charles Griffith, Auto Project director of the Michigan based Ecology Center. "There is enormous potential for revitalizing auto manufacturing in the nation's heartland, while at the same time making positive environmental steps to reduce the release of greenhouse gases and to reduce America's dependence on foreign oil. Environmental concern and supporting good union jobs can now go hand-in-hand."

Fuel efficiency

The first full hybrid to be built in North America, the Escape Hybrid is able to run either on its gasoline or its electric motor, or both together, based on driver demand. It runs solely on electric power at speeds below 25 mph, and then switches seamlessly to gasoline fuel at higher speeds.

It delivers acceleration similar to a V-6 Escape but is extremely fuel efficient. Emissions are clean - the Escape Hybrid will be certified to PZEV (Partial Zero Emissions Vehicle) standards - and it never needs to be plugged in.

A Ford Escape Hybrid SUV on a test drive. Photo: Ford
A Ford Escape Hybrid SUV on a test drive. Photo: Ford
A Ford Escape Hybrid SUV is driven non-stop for 37 hours, travelling 576 miles on one tank of gas.© Ford
To see how far an Escape Hybrid would go on one tank of gas, test drivers stayed behind the wheel non-stop for 37 hours in and around Manhattan on April 5 and 6. Several celebrities each drove a short leg of the journey, including actor Kevin Bacon, actress Jaime Gleicher, and NASCAR driver Kurt Busch.

The drivers took on traffic congestion plus morning and evening rush hours and traveled 576 miles on a single tank of gas, averaging about 38 miles per gallon.

"This is phenomenal! We beat our own best estimates," says Mary Ann Wright, Ford director of hybrid vehicle programs. "We set out to drive at least 500 miles of city traffic."

Consumer demand

"Now is the time for the US auto industry to take advantage of the hybrid market in America," said David Hamilton, director of the Sierra Club's Global Warming and Energy Program." There's strong consumer demand for vehicles that use less gasoline, including SUVs, and the launch of the Hybrid Escape shows that we have the technology to give consumers the clean, fuel efficient cars they want."

Ford plans to produce some 25,000 Escape Hybrids by the end of 2005. But Ford produces over six million vehicles annually, and the Escape SUV will account for less than half of one percent of the 2005 model year production.

That number barely makes a dent in the market, some environmentalists complain. "We're pleased to see that Ford is bringing a hybrid vehicle to market, but we're still waiting for its overall plan," said Jennifer Krill of Rainforest Action Network. "If Ford wants to position itself as an environmental leader, it needs to do more than produce one improved vehicle in limited quantities."

"Ford's Escape hybrid is a rolling advertisement for better technology and less pollution," said Elisa Lynch of Bluewater Network, "but it can't hide the fact that Ford will still have the worst fuel efficiency of any major US producer."

According to data from the US Environmental Protection Agency (EPA), Ford has had the lowest average fleet fuel economy of any major US automaker every year since 1999.

But Hamilton of the Sierra Club is encouraged by the manufacture of the Escape Hybrid. "Both the causes and solutions to global warming are intimately tied to our economy, our security, and the prosperity of American workers," he said. Copyright Environment News Service (ENS) 2004. All Rights Reserved. A slightly longer version of this article is published on the website ENS.