Well, of course, the Escape wasn't stalling at all; it was shutting off its internal-combustion engine while sitting at a stop light. But the incident illustrates that not everybody "gets it" when the topic comes to hybrids.

Even knowledgeable drivers get confused about how to get good mileage out of hybrids, judging by recent headlines. Our experience with the hybrid was that the Escape certainly drives well, but the best mileage only comes with experience.

The first thing you are likely to notice about the Escape is the slight delay when turning the ignition key. That's because the electric motor turns on and starts the internal-combustion engine. The ICE then shuts off, as my wife found out, if everything

is up to temperature and the battery has enough charge. The Escape will pull away using only its electric power if you are light-footed enough. The ICE kicks back on somewhere between 10 and 20 mph.

I was too impatient to ever take off using just the electric motor, though my wife managed it. Punching the throttle as I did gets the car's electric traction motor working with the 2.3-liter I-4 engine to boost acceleration. The two together put out 155 hp net. Ford says the hybrid drivetrain gives the Escape the performance feel of a larger V6, and we would have to agree. When the electric motor kicks in off the line, the SUV has some zip.

The gasoline engine will keep running at rest if you have enough electrical loads sucking juice, however, such as the A/C set on max. Outwardly, the only visual cue that the Escape packs a hybrid drivetrain is badging on the nameplates and a small rear vent that opens to cool the 330-V nickel-metal-hydride battery.

The Escape passenger compartment has a look that we'd call middle American beige. It is OK but nothing special. One neat feature was an optional $1,850 navigation system in the center dash that doubles as a real-time display of how energy flows from the ICE, battery, and electric motors. We think most Escape owners would find the visual confirmation of hybrid power flow reassuring if nothing else.

The Escape rides well for a sport-ute. The seats are comfortable and the Escape doesn't bounce you over potholes. There's good visibility out the back and steering seemed tight. That said, the pedal feel is a little different than ordinary vehicles. The brake and accelerator don't connect directly to either motor, but are part of a drive-by-wire system that sends commands to a computer. If the pedals feel as though they are on a driving simulator, it is because to some degree they are.

The Escape's fuel economy doesn't come just from its electric traction motor. The 2.3-liter ICE runs on an Atkinson cycle, where the engine takes in less fuel-air mixture than ordinary engines operating on the Otto cycle. The Escape's efficiency comes at the expense of power: 133 hp unassisted by the electric motor compared to 153 ordinarily, and 129 lb-ft of torque versus 152 from a conventional engine. So the boost from the electric traction motor during acceleration comes in handy. No question that drag racing is not the Escape's forte. Its 0-to-60 mph time is something over 10 sec and it can cover a quarter-mile in about 18 sec.

The EPA estimates the Escape hybrid will give you 36 mpg in the city and 31 mpg in country driving, presuming you've learned how to drive it economically. But if the comments of Escape owners on Internet forums are any indication, most buy the car not for the mileage, but out of personal commitment to the environment. The comments we've noted run more along the lines of the idea that going with a hybrid is just the "right thing to do."

Nor do any of the online comments from buyers we saw complain about the price: The base sticker is $26,380 which includes a power six-way driver seat, A/C, perimeter alarm, and fog lamps. Our review vehicle also carried a $625 appearance package that included some fascia and cladding, the $1,850 nav system, a $595 safety package with side air bags, $110 for an ac 110-V outlet, and a $75 retractable cargo cover. Together with the destination charge the total was $30,250. The $1,000 tax deduction that is available for hybrid buyers might help cushion the hit on the pocketbook. Buyers may be paying a premium for hybrid technology that could be hard to justify on the economics of gas prices, but from what we can tell, they don't seem to mind.