Road test: A 2012 Ford Hybrid New York taxi with 400,000 miles

Henry Payne
The Detroit News

Talk about built Ford tough.

I’ve been tooling around Detroit in a bright yellow 2012 Ford Escape Hybrid New York taxi with 400,000 miles on the odometer. Four-hundred thousand. I’ve never owned a car with 200,000 miles, much less a cab that survived New York’s street of Hades for all that time.

With Ford about to launch the first new hybrid option of its popular Escape model in 13 years, the cab that the automaker loaned to me is a revealing artifact of the promise and drawbacks of battery-powered vehicles.

You've come a long way, baby. On its tour of downtown Detroit, the 2012 Ford Escape Hybrid NYC Taxi stops by Ford's original Highland Park plant where the Model T was assembled.

The early 2000s were high times for hybrids as the Toyota Prius accelerated in sales while pundits predicted peak oil, and politicians declared hybrids Earth’s best friend. Leading the way was New York Mayor Michael Bloomberg who tried to force yellow cabs to go hybrid.

Bloomberg predicted all city taxis would be hybrid by 2012 and piled on incentives for cab drivers to get there (on top of $3,000 tax credits offered by the federal government). A leader in hybrids under Bill Ford, the Blue Oval was poised to take advantage of Bloomberg’s activism and, in 2007, yellow Escape hybrids starting hitting the city streets.

Or should I say bump-bump-bumping city streets.

I’ve driven Gotham byways for decades going back to my ‘80s Jersey college years, and they make Detroit’s oxcart paths seem smooth by comparison. Throw in city tempers and traffic thicker than Andrew Dice Clay’s Brooklyn accent, and a mile in a city cab can feel like you’re on an amusement park thrill ride.

The interior of the 2012 Ford Escape Hybrid NYC Taxi doesn't have the pizzaz of the forthcoming, 2020 Escape Hybrid.

Now do it for 400,000 miles.

I can only imagine what this Escape Hybrid has been through, and I admire its durability. No, not the interior which looks like it hosted a party of 6-year-olds. The ripped seats are patched with tape. The controller-knob graphics are worn to nothing. The driver’s-side visor kept dropping into my face. The driver’s-door window didn’t work, the radio wheezed and the interior had more rattles than a haunted house.

But the hybrid drivetrain was healthy as horse. This is remarkable because we all suspect that car batteries will one day expire like our phones.

Nope. Ford confirmed that the 400,000-mile drivetrain contained the original nickel-metal hydride battery mated to a 2.5-liter 4-cylinder engine and continuously variable transmission. Indeed, the combination of low-end electric-motor torque and smooth CVT shifting made for a drivetrain that had no business being competent after nearly half-a-million miles on Gotham roads.

The back seat of the 2012 Ford Escape Hybrid NYC Taxi had seen some wear over 400k miles.

Rated at 30 mpg new, my cab was still clocking 24.7 mpg in my two days in Detroit.

Alas, this reliability had little effect on the Escape Hybrid’s sales durability. After debuting to media acclaim – it won the 2006 North American Car of the Year – Escape Hybrid sales dropped by 60% by 2012 even as the Escape overall achieved record sales. With a whopping $9,000 premium over a comparable gas-powered model, not even government subsidies could make up the difference

A 2006 Roadshow review foreshadowed the steep hill Escape Hybrid had to climb: “Commanding a serious premium over a comparable gas-powered Ford Escape, our front-wheel-drive 2006 Ford Escape Hybrid came in at $31,080. At this list price, the Escape Hybrid runs into a lot of competition, and the novelty and reduced consumption for its size may not be enough to make it a winner.”

But the argument for the Ford Escape Hybrid as a taxi (or Uber as we say these days) is much more compelling. Especially with Ford’s upgrade to lithium-ion batteries in its most recent Fusion Hybrid and subsequent narrowing of the hybrid price premium.

While we won’t see the slipper, new Ford Escape Hybrid — one of my New York Auto Show 10 Best new products — until later this fall, we do know it will only cost $28,255. That’s just $3,370 more than the base gas-powered ute. Furthermore, it will likely return fuel economy numbers similar to the $28,000 Fusion Hybrid’s 42 mpg combined, a whopping 70% better than the standard $23,170 Fusion at 25 mpg.

Driving an average of 10,000 miles a year, a normal Fusion hybrid owner would take 10 years to make up that $5,000 premium at current $3-a-gallon gas prices. But cabbies aren’t average.

The average NYC cab driver puts on 50,000 miles a year (my taxi averaged 57,000 a year to clock its 400,000 total), which means they’d get the premium back in a cool 24 months.

No wonder so many Uber drivers tell me they are looking at hybrids. They’re economical – even compared to EVs which may never require a visit to the filling station, but need constant charging. Not so the gas hybrid.

The beauty of hybrid taxi-nomics is they just make sense, which means manufacturers shouldn’t have to rely on cockamamie political schemes to sell them.

That was not always the case. The nickel-hydride battery in the 2012 hybrid cab only delivered about 28% better fuel economy compared to Escape’s standard 2.5-liter mill. So it didn’t make up the $9,000 premium on my Ford Hybrid taxi until, well – last year. That’s a long time.

The 2012 Ford Escape Hybrid NYC Taxi mated a 2.5-liter gas engine to a nickel-metal hydride battery and electric motor.

We’ll see if the new Escape Hybrid lives up to its potential.

In the meantime, I didn’t do the 2012 taxi any favors by taking it through the streets of Detroit. An NYC-mobile with 400,000 miles on its bod deserves to retire to Florida like other senior citizens.

But I put the ol’ boy to work up and down the Lodge and I-75 and then up Woodward to visit Ford’s birthplace at the Highland Park factory. It was about a century ago, of course, that Henry’s gas engine defeated the electric vehicles of the time on cost and practicality.

A century later, Ford is betting battery power can compete with the gas engine. At least we know the battery can last as long as its gas engine.

Fill 'er up. Though hybrid engines are out of favor with governments these days, the gas engine is crucial to extended operation with easy access to gas infrastructure. Pure EVs have little charging infrastructure.

Henry Payne is auto critic for The Detroit News. Find him at or Twitter @HenryEPayne. Catch “Car Radio with Henry Payne” from noon-2 p.m. Saturdays on 910 AM Superstation.