DETROIT -- Ford Motor Co. will start production of hybrid gasoline-electric versions of its Escape sport utility vehicle in July 2004, with a target of selling 10,000 to 20,000 a year, company executives said on Thursday.
Ford has yet to set prices for the hybrid Escape, which may achieve fuel economy of up to 40 miles per gallon in city driving. Program managers at a media briefing and test drive said the hybrid Escape would be profitable, but that the full cost of developing the hybrid system would not be shouldered by Escape buyers.
The hybrid Escape uses an electric motor and battery pack as an additional power source for its four-cylinder engine. The batteries charge when the Escape cruises or brakes, and the electric motor eases the load on the engine under acceleration.
Environmentalists have demanded more hybrid vehicles from Detroit's Big Three, but automakers have been slow to embrace the technology due to cost and technical hurdles. So far, Toyota Motor Corp. and Honda Motor Co. Ltd. are the only automakers offering hybrids in the United States.
Toyota has been more enthusiastic about hybrid vehicles, rolling out an updated version of its Toyota Prius sedan that gets 60 miles per gallon in city driving, and promising a hybrid version of its Lexus RX 330 SUV next year.
The hybrid Escape will be built on the same assembly line in Claycomo, Missouri, that builds regular Escapes. A front-wheel-drive hybrid Escape should achieve 35 to 40 miles per gallon in city driving and 29 to 31 mpg in highway driving, compared with 19 mpg and 25 mpg ratings for a V-6 powered Escape.
Phil Martens, Ford's group vice president of product creation, said it was necessary for Ford to develop its own hybrid system because it needed hybrid expertise to build even more advanced vehicles in the future, such as hydrogen-powered fuel cell cars.
While the company considered buying a hybrid system from Toyota, "we didn't want to avoid the process of learning about this technology," Martens said. "To us, its a building block to the future."
Martens said the Escape's hybrid system was designed to be easily adapted to other models. Ford has said it will sell a hybrid version of its upcoming Futura sedan, but Martens declined to say what other hybrid models Ford might offer.
General Motors and DaimlerChrysler AG's Chrysler arm both plan to launch hybrid pickups next year.