San Diegan first to buy new gas-electric SUV

Yesterday, Bill Hammons became the first person in the country to own an Escape Hybrid, Ford's first foray into the much-hyped technology, which uses a combination gas-electric system to power the vehicle.

After waiting three long years, Bill Hammons was eager to get the keys to his new hybrid Ford Escape.

And it's no exaggeration to say Ford Motor Co. was just as eager to hand them over to the Linda Vista resident.

Yesterday, Hammons became the first person in the country to own an Escape Hybrid, Ford's first foray into the much-hyped technology, which uses a combination gas-electric system to power the vehicle. "It's fantastic," Hammons said, who until yesterday had not even test-driven the car. "It's every bit of what's been advertised." Buoyed by Toyota's success with its hybrid car, the Prius, Ford hopes Hammons is just one of many customers willing to pay extra for an Escape that gets better gas mileage and has practically zero emissions. While the base cost for a traditional Escape is about $23,000, the hybrid version starts at $26,000. In terms of gas mileage, the Ford Escape hybrid gets about 34 miles per gallon, compared with about 23 mpg for a conventional Escape.

Mary Ann Wright, director of Ford's sustainable mobile technologies division, was at Pearson Ford in San Diego to see the first Escape Hybrid off and said there are already more buyers than vehicles available. Ford plans to produce 20,000 2005 models and 20,000 2006 models. By the end of this year, Wright said as many as 6,000 Escape Hybrids will be made. "Everything we produce is going to be sold," she said. At Pearson Ford, there is a waiting list of about 17 people, dealership general manager Gary Hertica said. While many customers are interested in buying an Escape Hybrid, he said, he kept the list short because he knew the supply would not keep pace with demand.

"There's no point in getting hundreds of names and disappointing people," Hertica said. "It's not good for business."

While the typical Prius customer is sometimes described as a tree-hugging techie, Hertica said he has seen interest from a wide variety of consumers because the Escape Hybrid looks like any other SUV. "Anybody and everybody who wants to drive an SUV is a customer," he said. But for some analysts, it is unclear whether the success of the Prius, which is known for long waiting lists, especially in California, will translate into demand for Ford's Escape Hybrid.

Daniel Gorrell, an analyst with Strategic Vision Inc., said he's unsure if the typical Ford customer would be drawn to a hybrid version of an SUV. "Is the average Ford buyer into that sort of super-green thing, or are they more into NASCAR?" he said.

Also, some industry watchers say part of the appeal of the Prius, with its unique, almost futuristic style, is that it clearly declares a person's pro-environment attitudes.

In a consumer clinic to test attitudes toward Ford's Escape Hybrid, 700 car buyers interested in a hybrid vehicles came away disappointed with the SUV, said Art Spinella, president of CNW Marketing Research. "They were not enthused because it didn't look as distinctive as they thought it should," said Spinella, whose company held the clinic with consumers in Chicago, New York, Florida and Los Angeles. "The Escape looks like any other sport utility out on the road."

Gordon Wangers, president of Automotive Marketing Consultants, disagreed, saying there is so much pent-up demand for hybrids that the Escape should do well.

"The Escape Hybrid will be just as successful as the Prius, especially in California," he said. "That's because California consumers are very environmentally conscious and are early adopters." Gorrell said the reason why Prius has been so successful is that it has had the right price point and customers don't have to give up anything in terms of performance.

"The thing with Prius is that it couldn't be priced a lot more and it couldn't compromise on anything, and it didn't," he said. Wright said Ford has worked hard to make sure the driving experience with an Escape Hybrid is just as good if not better than a typical Escape. "This vehicle going out the door is perfect," she said. But Wangers said Ford has some catching up to do, as it is behind both Toyota and Honda, which makes the Insight hybrid as well as a hybrid version of the Civic. Ford licensed Toyota's hybrid technology and then modified it. "Toyota and Honda have gotten a head start," he said. "Ford has already let a bit of the party go by, and they've missed a few rounds of drinks already." Still, he expects carmakers that jump into the hybrid market to be well-rewarded. Lexus plans to come out with a hybrid version of its SUV soon, and Toyota has announced plans for a Highlander hybrid model. Wangers said that in two years, hybrid vehicles will account for 10 percent of all new-car sales in California.

"That is a sizable market," he said.

--Reuters contributed to this report.

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