The Great Escape

By Hannah Wallace March 31, 2005

It's always nice when government does something right, something that reflects an interest in saving taxpayer dollars. It's even nicer when that government is found in Florida-in Sarasota, in fact.

As you might expect by reading this column, the "right" thing is the purchase of vehicles driven by government employees. Too often, they're low-bid gas guzzlers that will be mechanical trouble for years. Sarasota, however, has done it right.

When the Toyota Prius-a hybrid combining a four-cylinder gasoline engine and an electric motor-was introduced in 2000, I wrote that this thrifty car should be purchased and used by government agencies. Sarasota County did just that, buying three Priuses that have averaged 41 miles per gallon of gasoline since purchase.

Now the county, a national leader in this arena, has purchased five 2005 Ford Escape Hybrid sport utility vehicles, noteworthy for outstanding fuel efficiency.

The county is interested in more than just better fuel efficiency and attendant savings. Officials speak of "sustainability," maintaining the quality of life without damaging natural systems for future generations. Sarasota County would like the quality of life to remain high as the county grows in population and business.

The idea is that efficient hybrid vehicles like the Prius and Escape do less damage to the environment as they go about doing public work. An added benefit is that they make America just a bit less dependent on foreign oil.

Sarasota County was among the first in the nation to purchase a Prius at its introduction. That first Prius, which I drove from Miami to Sarasota for a week of test driving, wasn't exactly polished. For one thing, it lacked cruise control and holding the right foot near the floor of the underpowered car on the interstate was a tiring chore.

Its instrument cluster, located atop the center of the dash, sometimes became invisible in bright sunlight and reflected brightly in the windshield at night. When the second generation Prius came out last year, all of its flaws had been fixed. It's a terrific car, easily the best buy in all autodom.

And it has a long waiting list of those wanting to buy one. Toyota is building a plant in the U.S. to ramp up production but won't likely meet buyer demand for several years.

Honda stumbled coming out of the gate with its hybrid Insight. The thing looked like a cockroach and could only seat two. Most of the rear cargo bay was filled with car batteries. It was heavy, slow and ugly. A few tree huggers bought them and will write nasty letters on recycled paper to anyone ignorant enough to criticize an Insight.

Toyota was second on the hybrid scene, but offered a more practical car than Honda. Honda has sold few Insights; Toyota can't meet demand for the Prius.

What's left of the American Big Three thought hydrogen fuel cells were the way of the future, but it turns out that might be the distant future. In the interim, they foresaw more lost sales to Toyota and Honda. So they got to work.

One result is the fantastic 2005 Ford Escape Hybrid, a true hybrid economy SUV. Not only does it have a category-high 36-mile-per-gallon rating on the highway, and 31 in the city, but it's one of the very best sport utilities by any measure.

Under its hood are the usual two power plants, a 2.3-liter inline four-cylinder that runs on regular gas and a 94-horsepower electric motor. Some of the time, both power plants work in unison, sometimes the electric motor can run the SUV on its own, and sometimes it has to take a breather to recharge while the gasoline motor powers the vehicle. When the vehicle stops, the gas engine shuts down. The powerful electric motor is ready to launch the vehicle at the touch of the accelerator.

This is not an electric vehicle, however. Neither is the Prius. Electric vehicles have not done well off golf courses, since those produced to date have limited range and speed, and require nightly recharging of their battery.

The electric motors in hybrid vehicles have batteries recharged while decelerating or braking. They are never plugged in. They will not run out of power unless driven under certain mountain conditions, which no one will ever encounter in Sarasota County.

But Ford is also pioneering another development with some of its 2005 models, including the Escape Hybrid: the continuously variable automatic transmission. This has to be felt to be believed. It does not shift gears. Press the accelerator and the engine rpm rises. The vehicle launches into motion. Press harder and rpm rises and stays there. When your desired speed is reached, you let up on the accelerator pedal and cruise.

It is smooth as melting butter.

Everything most drivers, and public servants, need on a vehicle is standard equipment at the Escape Hybrid's base $26,380 price. That includes such things as air conditioning and cruise control. Extras such as side bags and a special audio system brought our as-tested Escape Hybrid to $30,065. The Escape Hybrid is available with front-wheel or all-wheel drive. Sarasota purchased its Escape Hybrids at a special price of about $24,000 each.

Test week with the 2005 Escape Hybrid was without incident. No flaws were found. It's a fine sport utility for those wanting to seat five while needing the spaciousness of its sizable cargo bay.

And over the years, a buyer of this hybrid will save thousands in fuel costs while being friendlier to the environment than the gas-sucking SUVs so prevalent today. Sarasota is leading the way. Others should follow this leader.

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