The gasoline-electric Escape SUV is Ford’s sole hybrid offering for 2008 and, sharing, as it does, its external styling appeal with the conventional gasoline-engined Escape, it’s been selling pretty well lately.

Mid-cycle makeovers are, by their nature, limited to front- and rear-end fascia revisions, trim changes, colours, interiors and sundry other tweaks. And that’s pretty much the story with the 2008 Escape Hybrid.

For instance, a new front end completely changes the Hybrid’s character. It’s gone from being an anonymous family hauler to a tidy sport-ute that looks handsome and distinctive yet with a slightly feisty demeanour.

Another big part of the Escape’s mid-cycle rework was making the interior a much quieter and friendlier place, though some areas of fit and finish seemed to whisper “affordable domestic” in our test subject. However, the inside of the past-generation Escape used to scream that “affordable” perception, so much progress has been made.

The gasoline-engined Escape, with its older 2.3-litre four-cylinder and 3.0-litre V6 engine choices, comes up a little short of some of its segment rivals when it comes to power output. So that’s the beauty of opting for the Hybrid model — you get a thoroughly modern powertrain to go with the new mid-cycle cosmetic changes.

Like a Toyota, the Escape Hybrid can run near-silently up to about 40 km/h on 100 per cent electric power from its 70-kilowatt electric motor, maximizing fuel economy — with some extra help from its continuously variable transmission (the gasoline Escape gets by with a four-speed automatic). When additional power is required, the Hybrid’s 2.3-litre four-cylinder gasoline engine seamlessly engages, contributing 133 horsepower and 124 lb-ft of torque. The net result is 155 hp, giving acceleration between those of the four- and six-cylinder gasoline Escapes, with vastly better fuel economy in urban driving conditions.

While the Escape Hybrid is available in front-wheel-drive form at $31,499, our tester came in four-wheel-drive guise. With a base price of $33,899, we gave it full marks for value and, all in all, found it to be a very satisfying ride.

It rides comfortably in town or country, and at highway speeds the electric thrust is impressive and surely the measure of its gasoline V6 counterpart in quick passing moves.

The Hybrid Escape also benefits from a new electric steering system — one of Ford’s first. Although improved feel through the wheel is part of the package, overall handling is pretty much as it was in the previous Escape model.

In four-wheel-drive, the Hybrid is rated by the feds at 6.8 L/100 km city and 7.3 in highway use. Good numbers. The front-drive Hybrid, though, has a 5.7 city/6.7 highway rating. Great numbers. So stick with the front-drive model if you’re anxious to get all the benefits of hybrid technology. And don’t forget the provincial and federal eco-rebates — though the latter will be dropped by the end of the ‘08 model year.

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