On The Road Review: Ford Escape Hybrid vs. Volkswagen Jetta TDI, Part 1

Alternative-powered automobiles are taking center stage for many consumers as various technologies vie for what our next primary power source will be for individual travel. 

Currently, hybrid-powered vehicles accounted for only 2 percent of overall sales in 2008 in a market that saw 13.2 million light-duty vehicles sold. Diesel-powered pickup trucks — state and federal regs outlawed most diesel-powered cars last year — equals that amount. Hydrogen and compressed natural gas-powered vehicles aren’t even a blip on the radar screen.

For the foreseeable future, it appears that gasoline-fueled vehicles will be our principle source of power for the majority of every automaker’s fleet.

Competing forces are at work here. Asian automakers Toyota and Honda have developed competent gasoline/electric hybrid vehicles that have a loyal following. Ford is next in line, using Toyota’s process under licensing, with GM close behind. Most other makers are working on an alternative hybrid design, or, are far behind at this point.

So far, battery development is the Achilles heel for both hybrid development as well as plug-in electric cars — just like it was in 1909. Most pundits accurately claim that this is simply power shifting anyway as battery charging has to come from some other carbon-based source, so actual savings are minimal, if at all credible.

From Europe, all of the German automakers are betting on diesel-powered vehicles as well as upcoming diesel/hybrids. VW, Audi, BMW and Mercedes all have new Clean Diesel offerings for the United States this year. These new engines make tons of torque — most drivers crave torque — get much better fuel economy than comparable gasoline engines, plus deliver equal acceleration while actually producing lower harmful emissions than gasoline engines. Mercedes and BMW are also developing hybrid-diesel powertrains.

To their credit, diesel makers claim that if one-third of America’s light-duty vehicle fleet shifted to diesel power right now (over 50 percent of Europe’s new vehicle sales are diesel-powered) we would save over 1.4 million barrels of oil per day — the amount of oil that we import from Saudi Arabia.

In the spirit of this debate, we have two competing technologies to compare. From Ford, comes the latest edition of the Escape Hybrid. On sale since late 2004, the Escape Hybrid receives a revised 2.5-liter Atkinson-cycle four-cylinder engine for 2009. It has 20-hp more than last year’s hybrid model, now 153, plus the additional torque of a 94-hp electric motor and battery pack. Combined power output is rated for 175 hp. Mated to a CVT, continuously variable transmission, the Escape earns EPA mileage estimates of 34-mpg city, 31-mpg highway in base 2WD format.

From Volkswagen comes the new, 50-state legal Jetta TDI Clean Diesel. It sports an all-new 2.0-liter, 140-hp, 16-valve, turbodiesel four-cylinder. Peak torque is an impressive 236 pound/foot, funneled through either a six-speed manual or six-speed Tiptronic automatic transmission to the front wheels. EPA mileage ratings are 29-mpg city/40-mpg highway, but VW strongly disagreed and sourced the independent lab AMCI to compile the Jetta’s fuel efficiency. The AMCI fuel ratings are 38-mpg city/44-mpg highway. More about this later.

The Ford Escape has been a popular compact SUV. Since its debut in 2001 the Escape has eclipsed the Toyota RAV4 for second place in this segment, right behind the Honda CRV. In this class, neither the Honda nor the Toyota is available with a hybrid system; only the Saturn Vue offers a ‘mild-hybrid’ powertrain to compete with the Escape. Escape sales were down last year only 5 percent — one of the better showings of any nameplate in last year’s economy.

The Jetta, on the other hand, is the only compact car sold in America with a diesel engine. Revised for last year, the latest Jetta saw sales slide only 1.5 percent last year as buyers gravitated toward smaller vehicles. The Jetta is VW’s best selling model in the United States.

The Jetta diesel will soon be joined by the BMW 335d diesel sedan as well as a BMW X5 diesel and several Mercedes sedans. Mercedes will also have a diesel-powered version of its new GLK compact SUV, Audi is planning on several diesels and VW promises a diesel-powered Tiguan in the future. VW is also proposing a diesel-powered Golf for the 2010 model year in the States.

The Escape’s virtues are still evident in a design that is for all intents and purposes going on 10 years old. The cabin is airy and comfortable for four adults with space that rivals many midsize SUVs. There is a flat floor for second-row occupants, an easily accessible cargo hold via the light liftgate that features a glass panel that opens independent of the liftgate, plus numerous small slots and pockets for traveling gear.

Ford promised that the new Escape is quieter for 2009, but it is hard to detect. Firmer, low-rolling resistance tires produce more road noise than conventional tires, especially over broken and older pavement. Highway cruising was not objectionable, but neither was it serene.

Through the years, I have had several Escape test vehicles and I have found them to be a very versatile, functional size with good power (optional V-6 now sports 240-hp, 40-hp more than previous renditions) and a responsive all-wheel-drive system. The ride is softer than several competitors with an emphasis toward greater comfort rather than maximum control, while steering feel is heavily boosted and very light. Over undulating frost-ravaged terrain, the Escape Hybrid exhibited an absorbent ride with more rebound action than its two recently tested rivals.

Endowed with heated leather seats, navigation system, sunroof, rear back-up sensors and satellite radio my well-equipped Escape Hybrid Limited tipped the scales for over $34,000. Base 2WD hybrid editions list for $29,300. While other Escapes offer both manual and automatic transmissions, the hybrid version comes only with a CVT automatic. That is still a healthy premium over a regular 2.5-liter base XLS Escape that lists for under $21,000 — even if you do qualify for a $3,000 federal tax credit with the hybrid.

The compact Jetta TDI sedan on the other hand lists for a starting price of $21,990 with the manual transmission, $23,090 for the automatic. Move up to the Jetta TDI Sportwagon, which, incredibly, offers more peak cargo volume than the taller Escape, 66.7 cubic feet to 66.1, for $23,590 or $24,690 for the Tiptronic automatic. A base Jetta sedan, with a 2.5-liter, 170-hp in-line five-cylinder, starts at $17,340.

My frost white Jetta with large TDI Clean Diesel graphics liberally applied to the front doors (these are not present on cars sold to the public) featured heated cloth seats with manual adjusters, satellite radio, sunroof, steering wheel audio controls, bi-xenon headlamps, tilt and telescoping steering wheel, plus a standard stability anti-skid control system with traction assist. Volkswagen also offers three years or 36 months of free maintenance with every 2009 VW.

The Jetta is a composed, sporty compact car that exudes typical Germanic levels of handling and ride composure that most small cars lack. The taut steering, strong brakes, and adroit responsiveness to quick maneuvers make this small car relaxing and fun to drive. This is a driver’s car with a compact price.

The VW’s trunk also swallows a vast amount of gear. With more room in a finished hold that uses strut-style hinges, the Jetta owner can stuff over 15-cubic feet of packages here — more articles than several midsize sedans. Add a folding seatback with a pass-through slot and the Jetta offers several cargo options.

The Jetta also continues to impress for its high level of interior refinement as well as its superior level of standard equipment; points that still escape several rivals. A base Jetta offers more standard gear than some rivals offer as options.

The Jetta diesel is assembled in Mexico with German-built parts. The Escape Hybrid is built in Michigan. Which is the better technology for your driving style — electric/gasoline hybrid or diesel? In part two next week, we’ll take a look at the economics of each, plus their real-world fuel economy during a march around Maine in the month of March.

Next week: Part 2

Nicole Ouellette

Nicole Ouellette

When Nicole isn't giving advice she's completely unqualified to give, she runs an Internet marketing company in Bar Harbor, where she lives with her husband Derrick and their short dog Gidget. She loves young adult novels, cooking and talking French to anyone who'll talk back. [email protected]