Ford has formally begun production of a hybrid version of its Escape SUV, the world’s first petrol-electric hybrid sports utility vehicle and the first hybrid vehicle produced by an American automaker.

The Associated Press (AP) said that Bill Ford, Ford’s chairman and chief executive, on Thursday drove the Escape into a roomful of autoworkers at the company’s plant in suburban Kansas City, which will build 20,000 of the vehicles in the 2005 model year. Ford reportedly said providing a cleaner-burning, more fuel-efficient vehicle would keep the company competitive as more consumers consider petrol prices and pollution when buying a car.

“They don’t want to give up their SUVs, and we don’t think they should have to,” Ford told AP. “It gets them where they want to go with greater fuel efficiency and much lower emissions.”

Company officials reportedly said demand for the new Escape, which starts at $US26,300, about $3,300 more than the regular Escape, has been huge, with some dealers in California already taking orders and amassing waiting lists of 80 or more people.

That mirrors the success of Honda and Toyota, which announced earlier this week that it would increase production of the Prius to 15,000 a month from the current 10,000 – Toyota also plans to release hybrid versions of its Highlander and Lexus RX SUVs, AP noted.

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Ford officials reportedly said they were entering the hybrid market tentatively and, depending on how well the new Escape models sell, the company could increase production in future model years.

Ford reportedly said the Escape, which combines a 2.3-litre petrol engine, electric motor and 200-lb 330-volt battery pack, gets up to 36 miles per gallon in city driving and produces 30% fewer emissions than the regular Escape, which is a low-emissions vehicle.