During the auto bailout hearings in Washington last fall, we heard time and time again from the guys and gals with the gavels that the problem with Detroit is that it doesn’t make the kinds of cars Americans want to buy. Fair enough. Given the state of the industry, that’s logical.

We were also told by our elected marketing wizards that what Detroit should be making are fuel-efficient hybrid cars because that’s what Americans are really clamoring for. ‘So, go back to the drawing board, get to work on that, and maybe we’ll throw you a couple of bucks.’

Sen. Chris Dodd even slipped a line into his version of the bailout bill that suggested the Big 3 should look into getting into the train business. Apparently, given the opportunity most Americans would choose to drive those instead of cars. My 2-year-old wholeheartedly agrees every time Thomas the Tank Engine comes on TV.

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After the bill died, Dodd and many of his colleagues in Congress headed out to the parking garage, got into their Ford Escapes, and headed home for the holidays, likely hoping that Santa would solve the problem for them. Those Escapes, which happen to be American, were also hybrids. According to my sources, they are also the most fuel efficient SUVs you can buy.

It’s strange that the Congressmen didn’t mention that before they left. Perhaps it is some sort of Masonic conspiracy. Where’s Ben Gates when you actually need him? I can see the marquee now: "National Treasure: Wheels of Progress"

In fact the Escape Hybrid has become so popular among the Capitol Hillers looking to shore up their environmental credentials that it is now the environmentally-friendly equivalent of a seersucker suit in D.C. Even the Obamas traded one for the keys to their new presidential limousine. It’s a shame Detroit doesn’t make them for the rest of us, because then we could all be driving them just like those bullies on the pulpit told us we want to.

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What’s that? They do sell them to the public? What about all that stuff about Detroit not making cars that we want to buy? Been in showrooms since 2004 you say? They must sell millions of them! Come again? Less than 20,000 in 2008? Hmm, now I’m really confused.

It’s not for lack of effort. The Escape is a very competitive choice in the small SUV segment, and for someone looking to help save the planet while bringing their spouse, 2.5 kids, and associated accoutrement along for the ride, a nice alternative to a MINI Cooper.

Ford redesigned the body and interior of the Escape in 2008, and not much of what you can see changes this year. It’s like a truck fantasy camp, with a boxy body complimented by a sturdy interior that brings to mind what SUVs were like before they all started turning into cars. Underneath, it’s a different story.

There’s a new 2.5 liter, 4-cylinder engine that brings with it a much needed boost in power. While the old Escape Hybrid’s 133 horsepower was barely adequate, the 153 hp in the 2009 model is firmly adequate. It’s also a bit quieter and smoother, but not exactly either.

The added power is appreciated, and the gasoline engine works in better concert with the electric motor and continuously variable transmission to move the Escape Hybrid around with less obvious effort than before. Watching the power flow chart on the multimedia screen, I was surprised at how often the juice is on, even at highway cruising speed, not to mention how easy it is to drive the Escape Hybrid without looking out of the windshield.

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Around town a judicious right foot can keep the fossil fuel at bay for a couple of miles before running the battery down. I often traveled several city blocks without emitting any CO2 and was once able to get the Escape Hybrid up to 35 mph using only the flow of electrons. Impressive for a vehicle that weighs 700 pounds more than a Toyota Prius, a car in which I have never come close to that speed without combusting something internally.

Ford says that the regenerative braking system, which helps charge the batteries as you slow down, has been worked over for 2009. There is definitely less of that on/off sensation that hybrid brakes are known for, but the changes don’t seem to translate into better braking performance overall.

Combine all of that with even lower rolling resistance tires than last year’s model, plus a few aerodynamic tweaks, and you end up with an EPA rating of 34 mpg city/31 highway; 1 mpg highway better than last year. Not much, but when you are already number one, improvements tend to be incremental. A four-wheel drive version is available as well, but mileage drops to 29/27.

The only other major mechanical change is the very welcome addition of traction control. In the past, when driving on roads that were barely glistening with moisture, the front tires of the two-wheel drive Escape Hybrid would spin so easily that you’d wonder if there was any rolling resistance in them at all. Now, the computer arrests slip quickly, though a bit abruptly. Subtle it is not.

The Escape Hybrid also gets rollover stability control, but I didn’t have the opportunity to test it. At least I don’t think that I did.

Just because you can never be too green, the seats are stuffed with soy-based foam, rather than your run of the mill petroleum-derived cushy stuff. They are also upholstered with recycled fabric, which may or may not include material donated from clothes worn by Al Gore during his “An Inconvenient Truth” tour. Personally, I’d go with the option of fresh from the cattle farm leather. I’m told bovine exhaust is the real culprit behind global warming anyway.

$29,305 gets you in the door of a pretty well-equipped vehicle, and $30,635 will buy you the Limited model I tested with heated leather front seats, aluminum wheels, extra fancy trim inside and out, and a 6-cd changer for the voice activated Sync-equipped stereo. A navigation system is available that features Sirius Travel Link, which gives you local gas prices, weather, movie listings and sports scores, though I think I can wait until I get home to find out if my team won rather than spend the $2,395.

Then again, I could use the $3,000 federal tax credit the Escape Hybrid comes with to pay for the option and still have nearly enough left over for a year’s worth of gas, currently estimated at $779. But there is an alternative.

A plain old Escape Limited with a four cylinder engine and roughly the same equipment as the Escape Hybrid costs just $24,580. It has a new 6-speed automatic transmission, a 171hp engine, and feels quite a bit lighter on its feet than the Hybrid, because it is. Mileage of 20/28 doesn’t sound great, but is a 1 mpg improvement over the outgoing model and better than a Honda CR-V can manage.

More important, the normal Escape drives, well, normally, with none of the little idiosyncrasies that come with hybridization. Factoring in that tax credit -- but not any state incentives that may also be available -- you’d save $1,725 going with the less green model. At today’s prices, it would take 5 and a half years to recoup that cost in fuel savings.

That’s about as long as the Escape Hybrid has been on the market. Last year it was outsold by the standard Escape by a factor of nearly 10 to 1. The minority should be happy with their purchase, but, America, what do you really want to buy?


Base Price: $30,635

As Tested: $33,725

Type: Front-engine, front-wheel drive, 5-door crossover

Engine: 2.5-liter Inline-4 cylinder w/electric assist

Power: 153 horsepower, 136 lb-ft torque

Transmission: Electronically Controlled Continuously Variable

MPG: 34 city/31 highway

What do you think about the Escape Hybrid?

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