Since the days of the Clinton Admin., we've heard all about the virtues of hybrids.

The government's agenda — through the Partnership for a New Generation of Vehicles — was to pump big bucks into heady research and POOF! you'd have the auto industry equivalent to Kevin Costner's “Field of Dreams.” “Build it and they will come,” was the movie's catch phrase.

Of the Big Three that participated in the now-defunct PNGV, Ford Motor Co. is the first to market with a gas-electric vehicle. The '05 Escape Hybrid is aimed to sell at a rate of 20,000 units annually starting this fall.

Ford isn't first to the party, nor did it work alone, but the gas-sipping sport-ute ranks among the blue oval's most responsible innovations. Some critics say it's not enough, while others say it's about time. Either way, Ford deserves applause.

The Escape Hybrid sports an Atkinson-cycle variant of the Duratec 2.3L I-4 — 133 hp, 129 lb.-ft. (175 Nm) of torque — designed to offer little gas-guzzling torque at low speeds. The vehicle relies on a 94-hp electric motor for its low-end oomph, which, if treated nicely, can get you around town at 45-mpg (5L/100 km). Ford will market the vehicle with lower fuel-economy numbers to keep expectations in check.

Ford says the combination performs nearly as well as V-6-equipped Escapes. But after testing, it is safe to say the system is equivalent to an exceptional 4-cyl.

True, the electronic continuously variable transmission (CVT) is confining and occasionally struggles to find a convincing gear combination. Nevertheless, the transition from electric to internal-combustion propulsion is relatively seamless.

If the brawn is under the hood, the vehicle's brain — a relatively thin battery composed of 250 encased D-sized cells that spans the width and length of the cargo hold — is hidden in the rear beneath the carpet.

The Sanyo Electric Co. Ltd. 330-volt battery pack is recharged via energy captured from braking. The regenerative brakes, supplied by Continental Teves Inc., capture much of the 30% of energy often lost in braking and route it back to the battery. The brakes are good but grabby, as is the case with similar systems on other hybrids.

Ford will differentiate the vehicle by its “no compromise” capability and a set of interior dimensions that are nearly identical to its forbearer. Additional duct work cuts cargo volume a negligible 1%-4%, depending on the position of the rear seats.

Key to the functionality claim is the 4-wheel-drive setup, which Ford expects some 40% of buyers to take. Ford says the vehicle is an “SUV first, hybrid second.” Nowhere is that more evident than off-road. Here, fuel efficiency is thrown to the wind, and the vehicle's so-called Intelligent 4WD shines.

Although the front-wheel-drive version has its limits, the 4WD rambles its way to the mountain top, with the only drawback being Aisin AW Co. Ltd.'s unwieldy CVT.

The Escape Hybrid will have a base price around $27,000, partially offset by the $1,500 federal tax incentive for hybrid buyers. Under ideal driving conditions, Escape Hybrid owners could cut their trips to the gas station in half.

These days, that's money in the bank.

'05 Ford Escape Hybrid

Vehicle type: Front-engine, 4-wheel drive, 5-passenger 4-door cross/utility vehicle

Engine: 2.3L (2,261 cc) DOHC I-4, aluminum block/aluminum head

Power (SAE net): 133 hp @ 6.000 rpm

Torque: 129 lb.-ft. (175 Nm) @ 4,500 rpm

Compression ratio: 12.3:1

Bore × Stroke (mm): 87.5 × 94

Electric motor: Permanent magnet AC synchronous; 400-volt maximum

Electric power (SAE net): 94 hp @ 3,000-5,000 rpm

Transmission: Continuously variable

Wheelbase: 103.1 ins. (262 cm)

Overall length: 174.9 ins. (444 cm)

Overall width: 70.1 ins. (178 cm)

Overall height: 70.4 ins. (179 cm)

Curb weight: 3,792 lbs. (1,721 kg)

Market competition: Toyota Prius; Honda Civic Hybrid