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500-mile range expected from Ford's hybrid Escape

Seeking new vistas for SUVs
The controversy over Firestone tires has placed the spotlight on the Ford Explorer. But the automaker faces challenges in other parts of its profit-rich sport-utility lineup.

The Escape, although plagued by five recalls during its launch, has been a sales success. Now it is being prepped as Ford’s first foray into production hybrid powertrain vehicles. Land Rover, meanwhile, finally gets the Freelander for the U.S. market but is launching it into a crowded segment as industry sales cool. Here are closer looks at each.

Tom Watson proudly pats the top of a gasoline-electric powertrain that Ford Motor Co. will use in the upcoming Escape HEV hybrid vehicle.

“That’s my baby,” said Watson, powertrain manager.

But Watson is under enormous pressure to make sure that baby behaves when it is delivered to customers in about 18 months.

With sales of Ford’s vehicles down this year and the company reeling from the Firestone mess, quality issues, costly recalls and management turmoil, the Escape is one of the company’s few success stories.

During a press briefing last week, Watson explained how the drivetrain, dubbed PowerSmart, will work and the steps Ford is taking to ensure there are no embarrassing miscues.

Advanced hybrid

The Escape HEV’s powertrain is designed to operate as both a series hybrid, in which the engine runs a generator to create electricity for the traction motor, or as a parallel hybrid, in which both the engine and traction motor provide drive power.

The engine is a modified, five-stroke version of the Zetec four-cylinder. A special camshaft, which later closes the intake valves, and revised pistons optimize the compression ratio and lower pumping losses. With the changes, the engine uses less fuel at highway speeds but has much less low-speed torque. That is where the electric motor steps in.

Under heavy acceleration, the electric motor runs along with the gasoline engine to boost low-end torque.

In normal driving situations, the electric motor powers the vehicle by itself to speeds as high as 30 mph, drawing on either the nickel-metal hydride battery pack or using electricity generated by the engine in hybrid mode.

Watson said the two-wheel-drive version of the Escape HEV will achieve Ford’s goal of 40 mpg in combined city-highway driving. The four-wheel-drive version is expected to deliver about 30 mpg. Ford expects the Escape HEV to have a driving range of about 500 miles on a tank of fuel.

“We are aiming for nothing less than the hybrid vehicle crown,” Watson said.

Japanese technology

The PowerSmart system is not a Ford-designed unit but was a bonus from the acquisition of Volvo Car Corp. Before Ford bought Volvo in 1999, the Swedish automaker was working on a project with Aisin AW, a Japanese company best known for its automatic transmissions. After the purchase, Ford engineers decided the Volvo-Aisin project was better than the one they were working on in-house, and they switched.

Watson, aware of the pressure to get it right the first time said: “I’d be lying if I said I wasn’t under

the gun.”

You can reach Richard Truett at rtruett@crain.com

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