General

2021 Ford Escape PHEV’s powertrain upstages its host vehicle

2021 Ford Escape PHEV's powertrain upstages its host vehicle

The Ford Escape became the first hybrid SUV in 2004, and while the Escape dropped the gas-electric powertrain with its third-generation model, the current fourth-generation Escape offers two types of hybrids. Like the Toyota RAV4 and the newly designed Hyundai Tucson, the Ford Escape can be used as a traditional-style hybrid and as a recently added plug-in hybrid (there are also two non-hybrid engines). So, what does the PHEV bring to the party?

While the Escape’s base petrol engine is a 181-horsepower turbocharged 1.5-litre three-cylinder, the hybrids use a larger, naturally aspirated 2.5-litre four-cylinder, which, when combined with electric motor support, produces 200 PS (HEV) or 221 PS (PHEV). The regular hybrid is available with front or four-wheel drive, but the PHEV is front only. The plug-in’s estimated 11.2 kWh of usable juice provides a usable EV range of 60 kilometers, according to the EPA; while driving at highway speed, we got 25 miles out of it—still a respectable display, albeit less than the RAV4 Prime’s 32 miles.

Andi HedrickCar and driver

The EPA estimates that the Escape plug-in hybrid will deliver 40 mpg once the battery is depleted, which is roughly equivalent to the regular hybrid’s combined estimates of 41 mpg (FWD) and 40 mpg (AWD); that’s also significantly better than the most fuel-efficient non-hybrid Escape, which has a combined EPA estimate of 30 mpg. The PHEV returned 35 mpg in our 75 mph highway fuel economy test — 3 mpg lower than the EPA rating and the same as the base engine model — and averaged 36 MPGe overall.

HIGHHS: 40 mpg EPA combined estimate, useful EV range, short braking distance.

The Escape plug-in hybrid system’s multiple riding modes offer great flexibility. In addition to the standard mode, which uses gas or electricity at its discretion, there is one to save the battery for later (although the battery does not stay at 100 percent), another that allows the motor to add charge to the battery (this is more effective in stop-and-go traffic than on highway cruising), and a pure EV mode. The latter does not wake the engine even when the accelerator pedal is pressed, although a message on the cluster display will invite the driver to switch on the gas engine by pressing the OK button on the steering wheel. Drivers may want to accept that invitation because, especially on the highway, the car will slowly increase speed using only battery power. However, the powertrain is significantly quieter when electrically operated. As a hybrid, it’s a relatively raw 76 decibels at full throttle acceleration, 3 more than the RAV4 Prime.

Andi HedrickCar and driver

With the gas engine contributing its 165 horsepower to the electric motor’s power, the Escape PHEV takes 7.7 seconds to reach 60 mph, which matched our result with the FWD hybrid Escape and is fractionally better than the 8. .0 seconds we recorded with the base engine car. The quarter mile goes by in 16.0 seconds at a speed of 91 mph.

Those PHEV acceleration figures, however, are well behind the 302-horsepower RAV4 Prime plug-in’s 5.4-second run to 60 and 14.0-second quarter miles at 100 mph. The Toyota is also 0.5 second faster from 30 to 80 mph and 1.1 second faster from 50 to 70 mph. Obviously, while Toyota presents its PHEV as the performance variant, Ford is not. Buyers looking for the fastest breakout should instead check out the 250-horsepower 2.0-liter turbocharged four-cylinder, which zoomed to 60 mph in 5.7 seconds in our testing. However, it is exclusive to the Titanium finish of the top drawer and the all-wheel drive SEL.

Andi HedrickCar and driver

The Escape’s chassis tuning isn’t as well-sorted as the best in its class. The stiff suspension could do more to isolate bumps, and yet you wouldn’t put the Escape on the same sporty level as the Mazda CX-5. Controls in normal mode are fine in the middle, but take no effort when you’re on lock; yet it’s preferable to Sport mode, which is oddly stiff and springy. Braking modulation is fine at the top of the pedal, but gets a bit grabby in the last few yards before a stop. If you do it just right, you’ll sometimes be rewarded with a “brake coach: 100 percent energy return” message from attaboy. Hit the brake pedal at 70 mph and the Escape PHEV comes to a stop at 50 meters, a solid result that is a whopping 30 meters shorter than the RAV4 Prime.

Even in its base trim, the plug-in hybrid Escape comes standard with a 12.3-inch digital instrument cluster (it’s otherwise reserved for the Titanium model). The central display measures 8.0 inches and the SYNC 3 operating system is hard to fault, with a home screen showing multiple functions at once, simple general controls, and easy (though not wireless) Apple CarPlay and Android Auto smartphone pairing. The console has plenty of storage space, along with USB-A and USB-C ports. One advantage of the few-year-old interior design is that there are physical buttons and knobs to operate the audio system and climate control.

Andi HedrickCar and driver

LOWS: Front-wheel drive only, cheap interior materials, noisy acceleration.

The driver’s seating position is fine with good forward visibility, but the seat cushion feels oddly convex and the lateral support melts away when cornering. The passenger space is adequate and the rear seats can be adjusted, although it is less roomy here than in a Honda CR-V. Compared to the non-hybrid version, the PHEV’s higher load floor reduces the cargo area by between 3 and 5 cubic feet, resulting in 34 cubic feet of cargo space behind the rear seats and 61 cubic feet with the seatbacks folded. That’s slightly less than most others in the segment.

The cabin has the basics, but neither the design nor the materials are anything special. The embossed plastic on the door panels – even in our Titanium trimmed test car – is a notable offense, and there’s more of it on the center console.

Andi HedrickCar and driver

The PHEV is available in the same SE, SEL and Titanium trims as other Escapes, skipping just the base S. Currently, the overcharge for the PHEV over the regular hybrid ranges from $5270 to $5640, which is more than offset by a $6843 federal tax credit.

This PHEV powertrain does a good job of saving fuel, even if it has no real performance advantage over the regular hybrid or base petrol engine. And while the EV range can’t match that of the RAV4 Prime, it’s enough to make it worth plugging in. However, the Escape itself is generally a mid-range player. This drivetrain could be put to better use in the more characterful Bronco Sport or Maverick pickup – and since these two models share the Escape’s platform, it’s possible we could see just that.


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