Ford Motor Co. considered avoiding the term “hybrid” when its gasoline-electric vehicle, the '04 HEV Escape, reaches the market. Program insiders tell Ward's the auto maker wondered whether the term was too closely associated with gas-electric vehicles already in showrooms, such as Honda Motor Co. Ltd.'s Civic Hybrid. The term also often is applied to describe vehicles in the cross/utility vehicle (CUV) segment.

But Ford will not shy away from the label, allowing the vehicle to speak for itself. The gasoline-powered Escape already is classified as a CUV, according to Ward's segmentation. And unlike Civic, Toyota Motor Corp.'s Prius or Honda's other hybrid stablemate, Insight, the Escape Hybrid will offer off-road capability. Ford also claims its on-road performance will rival that of the current Escape's V-6 powerplant.

Meanwhile, Ford tells Ward's the HEV Escape also will feature its fuel-stingy electronic throttle control (ETC) system, which debuts this year on the '03 Lincoln LS. Estimates for the hybrid Escape already put its fuel economy rating at 40 mpg (5.9L/100 km).

The Escape hybrid's biggest competition may come from Honda, says President and CEO Hiroyuki Yoshino. He says Honda's next hybrid-powered vehicle may be an SUV.

The next Honda hybrid will be larger than its current offerings — it was the first to market in the segment with the 2-seat Insight and this year added the Civic Hybrid. While an SUV is under consideration, Yoshino says a hybrid for the Acura luxury brand is not in the near future.

Toyota, which currently produces the hybrid-powered Prius small car, plans for its next hybrid in the U.S. market to be a midsize SUV, likely a version of Toyota's High-lander. Yoshino says Honda sees no need to keep pace with Toyota, which is in the process of doubling its current global hybrid offerings to six. “It depends on the price of gas,” Yoshino says.