With gas at $4/gallon, the idea of towing a Star with a Ford Escape 4-cylinder gas-electric hybrid vehicle seems less bone-headed than it used to. At almost 100,000 miles and with about 25,000 miles of towing, I thought it was time to share the experience in hopes that others will consider this option. I must admit that pulling a 2,500 lb rig with a vehicle rated at 1,000 lb towing capacity seems like a warranty buster at first glance, but my engineering instinct began to question the towing rating. Since the V6 gas version of the same vehicle has a 3,500 lb towing capacity, then it is just a matter of horsepower, not braking or handling. The 4-cylinder gas-electric hybrid has almost V6 performance for acceleration, it just doesn’t have the power for sustained towing much above 65 mph.
Now here are some maintenance highlights that are often not considered in choosing a hybrid vehicle. Not all hybrids use the same technology, but the Ford Escape Hybrid uses the same technology as the Toyota Prius. The transmission is continuously variable, but unlike a conventional CVT, the hybrid vehicle uses a single planetary gear set in combination with two electric motor/generators to provide seamless power transfer from the gas engine to the drive shaft. These gears are always engaged, even in reverse or when the engine is stopped. It is the clever use of these motor/generators that provides the optimum ratio between the engine speed and the drive speed. The lack of a torque converter, clutches and shifting provides an extremely durable and efficient transmission. On my cross-country trek to Vancouver for the North Americans, I never had to use the brakes on the down grades. I simply slipped the transmission into low gear at any speed. Low gear is misleading since there is no gear change – only increased battery charging. But if the battery is fully charged, then engine braking is activated with a smooth but noticeable increase in engine RPM. I still have the original brake pads after 100,000 miles due to regenerative braking. Also, the factory recommended maintenance interval for oil change, etc. is every 10,000 miles whereas for the gas model equivalent, it is every 5,000 miles. I am fully confident that I will get another 100,000 miles of trouble-free use from this vehicle.
The Ford Escape has a fancy MPG indicator with a line graph that updates every minute. With that kind of data, you can instantly see the impact of hills, headwinds, tailwinds, A/C and, of course, the big one – highway speed. I get about 22-23 MPG towing at about 65 mph. If I have the patience and guts to drive 55 mph, then the towing MPG goes up to about 27 MPG. Non-towing use is about 30 MPG (35+ MPG with conservative driving – not bad for an all-wheel drive SUV). City mileage is better than highway. For towing, I just keep my eye on the tachometer and MPG indicator to be sure I am not over-taxing the engine. If I’m held up in traffic, it is a great stress reliever to know that my MPG will improve.
The 2009 Ford Escape Hybrid has about 15% more horsepower. If you want blistering performance in a hybrid tow vehicle, the Toyota Highlander Hybrid has about 50% more horsepower and a tow rating of 3,500 lbs with an impressive MPG rating only about 10% less than the Ford Escape Hybrid. Expect to wait six months or longer for delivery of a new hybrid tow vehicle. However, I wouldn’t hesitate to buy used, if you can find one.
I hope this generates some interest. If you’re looking for a single vehicle that gets the towing job done and can get great mileage in the non-towing environment, I can’t think of a better choice than the Ford Escape Hybrid. Just throw on a class 3 hitch, use synthetic oil, and stick with the 10,000 mile maintenance schedule, even if your dealer tries to convince you otherwise. Oh yes, and ditch that roof rack – too much wind resistance.
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