Ford Escape plug-in prototype shows potential

Automakers are moving fast to determine whether plug-in hybrid electric vehicles can be put onto the market affordably.

PHEVs can up to triple fuel mileage in short trips, and recharging costs less than gas to go the same distance. It appears that plug-ins cut tailpipe emissions more than enough to make up for any pollution caused by the plants that generate the electricity to charge them.

Win-win-win.

"I'll take two," you say. Hold on, sport. Plug-ins require costly additional battery capacity and plug-in rechargers. Regular gas-electric hybrids can't be plugged in and don't have capacity to run battery-only.

Automakers are uncertain how much costlier plug-in hybrids would be over normal hybrids, which, in turn, cost at least $2,000 more than gasoline vehicles.

Still, it's intriguing enough and possible enough to take plug-ins seriously and to drive 'em if you got 'em.

Test Drive examined a prototype Toyota tm Prius plug-in hybrid last Friday. This time we'll look at a prototype version of Ford Motor's f Escape SUV plug-in hybrid.

The Escape plug-in hybrid, on display at the auto show in Washington, D.C., this week, is rolling into service at Southern California Edison, where some will go to individuals to measure results in ordinary driving.

Before delivering it to the show, Ford engineers gave USA TODAY wheel time in the front-drive prototype.

Short take: excellent mileage, extraordinarily smooth integration of gasoline and electric powerplants. Escape's aging design hobbles the package overall, but it's likely to be redesigned by the time a plug-in hybrid version would be available.

Ford, Toyota, General Motors gm and others developing plug-ins won't yet vouch for the reliability of the lithium-ion batteries probably needed for practical PHEVs. They hope furious development brings long-life, low-cost lithium batteries soon — 2010 or so.

The idea of PHEVs is to run on battery power as long as possible before hailing the gasoline engine for help, with no gas use or tailpipe emissions for that time.

Here's what you probably want to know first about the Escape PHEV: 55 miles per gallon, according to Ford engineers' on-board computer.

That was in 23 miles of snowy suburban driving that included rolling hills, hard acceleration and slick-street wheel spin just for the fun of it. And here's a nugget: Escape's traction control actually allows some wheel spin, which is good on many surfaces. Too often today's traction systems in nanny vehicles don't.

Ford's Greg Frenette, chief engineer for plug-in and fuel-cell vehicles, says up to 120 mpg in town is reasonable in flatter, moderate driving. He forecasts 70 to 80 mpg on the highway, where the gas engine works more, and 30 miles of light driving up to 40 mph on a charged battery alone.

The prototype Toyota Prius PHEV reviewed last Friday showed 71.3 mpg on its trip computer in a downtown Detroit loop and a freeway spurt. It has twice the battery of a normal Prius, but it uses some to boost power, so it goes about 7 battery-only miles.

Escape PHEV has five times the battery and uses it all for extended range, which is how it hits 30 miles.

In search of real-world results, no special restraint was exercised driving, so results were worse than the automakers' theoretical maximums. Ford, notably, seems to have nearly erased the shudder common in hybrids when the gasoline engine joins the party. "Our engineers worked very hard on that," Frenette says.

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