Ford's Great Escape?

© Jim Motavalli

The Ford Motor Company's chairman, Bill Ford, great-grandson of founder Henry Ford, was celebrating a moment of rather personal triumph. Long the environmentalist-in-chief at the company, Ford had pushed for and won approval for a 35-40 mile-per gallon (mpg), gas-electric hybrid version of the small Escape SUV.

Last week at the New York International Auto Show, he took the wraps off the car. "The Escape hybrid couldn't come at a better time," Ford said. "People concerned about rising gas prices want to retain the convenience of an SUV. This car, with no compromise on fuel economy, shows we can balance competing interests. You can have it all."

The previous day, Ford's folks drove the hybrid Escape around Manhattan with actor Kevin Bacon in tow, achieving 576 miles on a single tank of gas, the equivalent of 38 mpg. The car is also both a super-ultra-low emission vehicle (SULEV) and a partial zero emission vehicle (PZEV), meaning it's more than 90 percent cleaner than the average 2003 model car. (Ford's other PZEV is a version of the Focus only available in states that follow the California emission laws, namely New York, Massachusetts, Maine and Vermont.)

But Bill Ford's moment of glory was nearly tarnished by Global Exchange's Jason Mark. Global Exchange is in a coalition that includes the Sierra Club and Rainforest Action Network (RAN), pushing Ford to improve its fuel economy. The effort has gone on for almost a year, with activists clearly wanting the same results RAN and others have had with consumer campaigns targeting large companies like Staples and Mitsubishi.

But what has worked with rainforest wood and virgin paper has so far not worked with cars. At the Javits Center, Jason Mark (not the same Jason Mark who works on car campaigns for the Union of Concerned Scientists, amazingly enough) planned to crash Ford's parade by unfurling a banner reading "Ford: Escape All Gas Guzzlers Now."

Alas, Mark popped one helium balloon on a chain-link fence on the way into the Javits Center, then lost another one on an auto show display. Two balloons weren't enough. "It would only go about five feet in the air and you couldn't read the banner," he lamented. "Smooth move, buddy," taunted a Ford stagehand.

Despite these setback, Mark managed to corner Ford for a few minutes after his talk. "I said we want to see a hybrid option on all of Ford's vehicles," says Mark. "He responded by talking about towing capacity. I said they weren't moving fast enough to break our oil addiction. He said they're doing what they can. He's an amicable guy."

The green groups have sponsored a series of anti-Ford events, including a rally outside the auto show on April 10. They handed out materials urging auto show attendees to pressure Ford on fuel economy.

As it happens, I spoke to Bill Ford for a few minutes also, and complimented him on the Escape. I drove it that day and found it an impressive achievement, equal in many ways to the Toyota Prius (especially in its nearly undetectable switch from electric to gasoline power). Being an SUV with four-wheel-drive as an option, it should sell well. Ford has targeted sales of 20,000 a year, which is less than Prius but not bad for the company's debut year.

Brendan Bell, a Sierra Club global warming program representative, says that Ford overall has lower average fuel economy than any other U.S. automaker. "Bill Ford understands that automakers need to do better," Bell says. "Ford has broken its pledge not to lobby Congress on the Corporate Average Fuel Economy (CAFE) standards." And that explains why the activists have targeted Ford. They see Bill Ford as a worthy target, someone who "gets" the green message, and is therefore susceptible to their pleas.

DaimlerChrysler has no comparable hybrid program to the Escape. General Motors has reneged on its 2005 commitment to a hybrid version of the Saturn Vue (moving it back to 2007). Presumably these companies are riper targets, but they're headed by standard-issue car executives, not Bill Ford.