It was the first hybrid sport utility in the world, launched with great fanfare by Ford in 2004, and for 2011, the Escape Hybrid is still going strong--and still selling steadily. The current design dates back to a 2008 freshening of a basic vehicle first launched way back in 1999.
Now an old design in the twilight of its life cycle, the 2011 Ford Escape Hybrid blends hauling and load capacity, substantial ground clearance, and truck-like upright styling with a remarkably sophisticated hybrid powertrain that delivers 34 mpg city, 31 mpg highway.
It also offers the unique option of mechanical all-wheel-drive in a hybrid crossover, rather than the light-duty all-wheel-drive provided by Toyota and Lexus by adding an electric motor to power the rear wheels.
To get that combination anywhere else, you're automatically up to a full-size GM sport utility vehicle. And it's popular, with just under half of all Escape Hybrid buyers specifying all-wheel-drive, regardless of other options.
The powertrain combines a specially tuned 2.5-liter four-cylinder engine with a pair of electric motor-generators in a system that can power itself on electricity alone at speeds beyond 30 mph, at least under the right circumstances.
An air-cooled nickel-metal-hydride battery pack stores the energy captured by regenerative braking, and impinges hardly at all on the rear load deck.
Ford has kept updating the hybrid system, recently adding electric air conditioning powered by the high-voltage battery pack. That means the engine can shut off as needed even if the AC is turned on, a huge benefit for gas-sipping drivers in hot climates.
The Escape can also be ordered with Ford's Sync voice-activated infotainment package, though the more sophisticated MyFord Touch isn't an option on this aging warrior. Sirius Travel Link is another option, offering real-time traffic data, navigation, weather info, even local gas prices. Another option is the remarkably effective Active Park Assist feature, which spins the steering wheel to parallel-park the car in a space you designate while you accelerate and brake.
The upright styling offers excellent side and rear visibiilty, though the Escape Hybrid's high stance means vision just behind the tailgate is impossible. An optional rear-view camera and blind-spot mirrors add to the Escape Hybrid's safety quotient.
The 2011 Ford Escape Hybrid falls down inside the cabin. It seats four adequately, though the cushion on the back bench seat is short. The hard interior plastics are years behind the latest Ford offerings. There's a lot of noise--from the tires, from the wind, from the engine--and combined, it feels "trucky" from behind the wheel.
Worse, the integration of the instruments and the hybrid system operating info--or utter lack of it--feels archaic against Ford's own Fusion Hybrid. The Escape Hybrid's pair of monochrome dot-matrix displays, one between the instruments, the other in the center stack, point out just how intuitive and advanced the Fusion Hybrid's full-color "glass dashboard" display and color graphics are.
Nonetheless, as a tough, capable, and high-mileage compact crossover that's built in the U.S., the 2011 Ford Escape Hybrid sees duty as everything from a family hauler to a New York City yellow cab--consistently delivering 30 mpg while doing so.
It's smaller than the Toyota Highlander Hybrid (which offers a third-row seating option), and far plainer than the luxurious Lexus RX 450h crossover. As the all-American hybrid, and the first one built in the U.S., close to 150,000 Escape Hybrids have been sold since it launched. And it just keeps soldiering on.