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.
"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.
The transition among electric-only, electric-and-gas and gas-only modes was undetectable in the test — up there with the $105,000 Lexus LS 600h L hybrid.
The Escape PHEV's battery is bigger and weighs more than the current Escape hybrid battery. Thus, there's slower acceleration.
Frenette says the goal is a production PHEV with the same capacity and capability as the regular hybrid.
Otherwise, the Escape PHEV was pretty much an Escape hybrid. And the hybrid seems the smoothest and most pleasant of the entire Escape line.
The prototype's brakes didn't have the feel of an anchor tossed overboard that you get from most hybrids' regenerative braking systems, which recharge the batteries as the vehicle slows. Its signature on most hybrids is a sudden scrubbing of speed when you release the throttle and more when you press the brake.
The Escape interior's been redone for 2008, an upgrade only partly successful. Some controls operate more smoothly, and the '08 is quieter. But the rear seats don't slide, as they do in rivals Honda CR-V and Toyota RAV4. The dash tries too hard to be dressy.
Upholstery is made of recycled plastic that looks and feels better than you'd think.
The exterior got cosmetic tweaks it didn't need and you don't want, such as a garish, faux-chrome grille.
Based on drives in the Prius and Escape prototypes, PHEVs should attract plenty of buyers if they actually make it into production — and are affordable. Cautions Frenette: "These big batteries are expensive."
ABOUT THE FORD ESCAPE PLUG-IN HYBRID
•What is it? Plug-in version of the Escape compact SUV gasoline-electric hybrid. Has five times as much battery capacity and hardware as the current Escape hybrid to recharge the battery from a standard household outlet.
•What's the point? Minimize fuel consumption by using battery-only power as long as possible before the gasoline engine kicks in.
•How soon? It's a prototype. If tests are positive, it could be on the market in five years.
•How much? It's unclear how much the bigger battery and charging hardware would boost the price. Today's normal Escape hybrid starts at $27,170.
•What's the drivetrain? Same as a non-plug-in Escape hybrid, but with a 10-kilowatt-hour battery vs. 2-kilowatt-hour battery. Has 2.3-liter gasoline engine rated 133 horsepower at 6,000 rpm, 124 pounds-feet of torque at 4,250 rpm, mated to an electric motor rated 94 hp, driving through continuously variable automatic transmission.
•What's the rest? Features, furnishings are similar to normal Escape hybrid, which can be found at www.forddirect.com.
•How big? Typical small SUV: 174.7 inches long, 71.1 inches wide (81.3 inches including mirrors), 67.7 inches tall on a 103.1-inch wheelbase. Weight is listed as 3,900 pounds, about 260 more than non-plug-in Escape hybrid. Ford expects to cut that by 45 pounds.
Prototype has slightly less cargo space than the production hybrid because the battery is bigger, but Ford says the production plug-in would have the same cargo and passenger space as a non-plug-in. Turning circle diameter is listed as 36.7 feet, curb-to-curb.
•How thirsty? Ford claims up to 120 miles per gallon in city driving, 70 to 80 mpg on the highway.
Ford says that careful drivers could stay on battery-only power up to 40 mph for the first 30 miles, using no gasoline. After that, the vehicle becomes a conventional gasoline-electric hybrid.
2008 Escape hybrid is rated 34 mpg in town, 30 mpg on the highway, 32 in combined driving (front-wheel drive) and 29/27/28 (all-wheel drive); 2009 models get a different engine, but Ford hasn't forecast mileage ratings.
The experimental trip computer was faulty in the FWD prototype test vehicle. Ford says a separate computer in the vehicle showed 55 mpg for the test — 23 brisk, suburban miles on snow-slick, wheel-spin-inviting streets.
•Overall:Smoothest hybrid drivetrain yet tested; excellent mileage. Can Ford bring it to market at the right price?