We're zipping along at 40 mph on the streets of Dearborn, Michigan, and not burning a drop of gasoline. Our ride is quiet, smooth, and clean ... propelled by electricity downloaded from the grid via a standard 110 volt household outlet. This test drive of Ford's Escape Plug-in Hybrid Electric Vehicle, or PHEV, has left us mighty impressed and ready for more.
As a PHEV, this Escape can accelerate up to 40 mph solely on electric power at a fairly aggressive rate without need for the internal combustion engine. Hold a steady 40 mph and the electric drive is more than happy to maintain this momentum on its own. Above 40 mph or during hard acceleration, the Escape's Atkinson cycle four-cylinder engine kicks in to provide extra power as needed. Even then, the PHEV Escape uses very little gasoline because it has also been modified to be a flex-fuel vehicle with the ability to operate on E85 ethanol.
For around town jaunts, it's possible to operate on just the electricity stored in this efficient SUV's lithium-ion battery, with enough juice on hand to travel up to 30 miles if you keep it under 40 mph. For longer distances, the balance of power between the electric drive and internal combustion engine will yield exceptional fuel economy. Once the high-voltage Li-ion battery is drawn down to a 30 percent charge, the PHEV functions much like your typical Escape Hybrid.
For a 30 mile trip in average driving conditions, Ford says the Escape PHEV will deliver the equivalent of 120 mpg. The longer you drive before recharging, the lower the mpg number will be, but thanks to the Escape Hybrid's 15 gallon fuel tank the vehicle isn't range-limited for cross-country travel. If your daily commute falls within that 30 mile range, 120 mpg will cut your fuel bill drastically. And since electric power is far less expensive than gasoline for low speed travel, overall energy costs will be a fraction of what you would normally pay.
The Escape PHEV's center LCD communications screen clearly illustrates the difference. On the trip computer screen, a driver can enter the current price of gasoline and the going rate for a kilowatt hour (kW/hrs) of electricity. The system then keeps a running tab of your total energy consumption and the savings achieved by the use of electric power. It also provides current average fuel economy, the previous average, and previous best economy.
Ford is using an advanced technology Li-ion HV battery with a capacity of 10 kW/hrs. The standard Escape Hybrid utilizes a 2 kW/hr nickel-metal-hydride battery pack. The Li-ion battery technology is too expensive for prime time consumer automotive applications at this stage of development, but breakthroughs in design and chemistry - along with higher volume applications - should bring costs down in the future. To recharge the Li-ion battery, a standard electrical cord is simply plugged into the port on the driver's side front fender. It's pretty cool, too, surrounded by a ring of blue LED lights with a flip-open billet aluminum door. A full charge will take six to eight hours at 110 volts. The percentage of charge shows up on a blue LED readout mounted behind the inside rearview mirror so it can be easily checked from the front of the vehicle.
We found the plug-in Escape to be great fun to drive. With the combination of the four-cylinder internal combustion engine and 94 horsepower AC synchronous electric motor, it delivers spirited acceleration. The 3,900 pound Escape PHEV is said to have an electronically limited top speed of 102 mph. It does feel a bit heavier than a standard Escape Hybrid, no doubt due to the additional Li-ion battery capacity. On electric power alone, the Escape PHEV is super smooth under acceleration and the transitions to blended power with the internal combustion engine are nearly transparent and devoid of any shuddering.
Ford has a unique two year partnership with Southern California Edison that will eventually field a total of 20 Escape PHEVs in a study and demonstration fleet. The utility company will aid in a study on the electrification of automobile powertrains and how they impact the electric grid and power infrastructure. SCE and Ford will test the vehicles in typical consumer settings and real world applications jointly.
Will plug-ins make it to consumers' driveways in the next few years? Only time will tell. Battery breakthroughs are definitely needed to reduce costs, although new federal incentives should help defray those extra costs. Several automakers are also committing to plug-in hybrids in specific time frames to gain a market advantage, a move that will spur competition among automakers and certainly work toward speeding these vehicles to the showroom.