You know the car you are driving is something special when the parking valet compliments you on it. After all, this guy sees and drives everything. So even though the Manhattan garage where I parked for an hour last Thursday afternoon was packed with Lexuses, BMWs and other luxury vehicles, I knew the attendant was right on when he commented that the $30,000 Ford Escape Hybrid I was driving was a "nice car."
It's much more than nice, though. The first hybrid SUV sold in the U.S. and the first American hybrid car, it is also a technological breakthrough at a fair price. The model TIME tested has a sticker price of $30,750 thanks to extras like a navigation system and leather seats, but the basic model starts at $26,380. Several other hybrid SUVs are on the way, including a Toyota Highlander in 2005 and a Saturn Vue in 2006, but so far only Ford has delivered.
The Escape Hybrid's gas engine is a modest four-cylinder, 2.3-liter unit. But its electric motor gives it extra juice for a combined 155 hp. The motor is powered by a 250-lb. battery pack that lies flat beneath the cargo area, where the spare tire would normally go. The battery is automatically recharged during driving and braking.
In TIME's 200-mile test drive of one of the first production models, which is identical to the models consumers are getting, the Escape Hybrid's fuel economy matched or beat its EPA ratings of 36 m.p.g. in the city and 31 m.p.g. on the highway. TIME got 36 m.p.g. in the city and 34 m.p.g. on the highway, according to the dashboard display.
What I have always liked best about hybrids is the complete silence you enjoy when they're running on the electric motor. So it was all the more jarring to hear the gas engine rumble on at unexpected moments. The Escape Hybrid can run solely on electric power when idling and at speeds of up to 25 m.p.h. But unless you accelerate gently, the engine will come on at lower speeds. Also, the engine revved noticeably loudly when I increased speed on the freeway.
You pay a premium for a hybrid, in this case $3,500 more than for a regular Escape, which looks nearly identical. In exchange, you get gas mileage that is nearly twice as good in the city (36 m.p.g. vs. 20 m.p.g.) and 6 m.p.g. better on the highway. And for now, you get a $1,500 tax write-off from Uncle Sam. Do the math, and you quickly realize that you still won't save money overall with a hybrid. But you will spend less time at the pump and drive the most fuel-efficient SUV in America.