Ford announced last week that it will kill the Ford Escape Hybrid. That probably isn't a reason to go into mourning, but the Escape was Ford's great hope when it was introduced in 2004 as the very first American-made hybrid car. For four years, the Big Three had been taking a shellacking in the visionary department because Toyota had gotten their first with the Prius. Ford actually leased Prius technology for the Escape, though the company says it just did that for legal reasons.
But the Escape ended up doing all right, selling a niche but respectable 15,000 annually. In August, it was in seventh place among the hybrids, but it was the second-hottest selling American entry (after Ford's newer Fusion). In truth, there's the Prius then there's everything else. The Prius sold 9,491 units, and the Escape 563. That's one advantage of being first in the marketplace.
The 2013 Escape won't have a hybrid option, but consumers can get a very eco version with a 1.6-liter turbocharged and direct-injected EcoBoost powerplant. And the kicker is that the EcoBoost Escape will have better gas mileage than the 31-mpg highway hybrid. "EcoBoost will continue to be the cornerstone of our fuel-efficiency strategy," said Ford's Derrick Kuzak.
Ford isn't giving up on hybrids. In addition to the Fusion continuing, the 2012 C-Max (a sort of combo SUV/wagon thing) will also be available as a hybrid. But EcoBoost is really innovative, and is proof that there's still some life left in the old internal-combustion engine.
The Escape will have a four-cylinder version, but Ford is developing three-cylinder versions (backed by six-speed transmissions) for the American market with the goal of nothing less than 50 mpg. It's been a while since we had engines that small in the U.S. Remember the Geo Metro and the Suzuki Swift? Cars like that are commonplace in Europe, but we were in love with V8s — until gas went to $4 a gallon.
Now Ford is selling all the EcoBoost engines it can get, including on the hugely popular F150 truck. As it happens, I'm driving one of those right now. Anyone worried that four-cylinder engines lack smoothness should give the truck a test spin. You could balance a full glass of water at speed in this F150 and not lose a drop, and there's plenty of passing power, too. But in a very large truck like this one an efficient engine can't work miracles. In a week of driving around southern Connecticut, I averaged 14.8 mpg.
Fighting Cancer with Fuel Cells
Hyundai drove a hydrogen-powered Tucson 4,600 miles across the country, stopping at 20 cancer hospitals and awarding more than $7 million in research funds. Brianna Commerford, a 13-year-old cancer survivor from New Jersey who is a national youth ambassador for Hyundai, said during a brief speech at the end point in New York City that she hopes to be driving a fuel-cell car like the Tucson when she turns 16. I asked her if she was aware of how the cars worked, and she said, "At first I thought they had to be plugged in, but then I learned that they are filled with this great stuff called hydrogen."