Ford has delayed the debut of its petrol-electric hybrid sport utility vehicle by several months, saying on Monday that it wants more time for testing, Reuters reported.

The news agency said Ford is the second Detroit vehicle maker to delay plans for a high-mileage, high-technology hybrid truck – DaimlerChrysler said last year it was cancelling plans for a hybrid version of its Dodge Durango SUV.

Ford’s Escape and hybrid pickups from Chrysler and General Motors are now all promised for 2004, Reuters added.

Reuters noted that Ford had said it would sell an unspecified number of hybrid Escapes to business fleets this year as a test programme, and sell them to retail buyers next year.

But Ford spokeswoman Angela Coletti on Monday told the news agency that the car maker was delaying sales to fleets, and that hybrid Escapes would now go on sale in “late summer” of 2004.

Coletti also reportedly said that Ford is already conducting durability and fuel economy tests on some hybrid Escapes.

“External fleet testing would have given us the same information that we’re collecting internally,” Coletti told Reuters, adding: “It’s a more efficient use of our resources to conduct the same testing internally.”

According to the news agency, Coletti said Ford was still aiming for fuel economy of up to 40 miles per [US] gallon in city driving for a front-wheel drive hybrid Escape versus 23 miles per gallon for the regular front-wheel-drive Escape with a four-cylinder engine.

Reuters noted that, so far, Toyota and Honda are the only car makers offering hybrids and sales of their three hybrid cars in the US have totalled about 27,000 vehicles to the end of August, or about 0.2% of the market.

According to the report, Toyota has been more enthusiastic about the potential for hybrid vehicles, launching an updated version of its Prius hatchback and promising a hybrid version of the Lexus RX 330/300 SUV next year.

Reuters said that Honda sells a hybrid version of its Civic sedan, but is slowly phasing out its two-seat hybrid Insight coupe and has not said what its next hybrid model will be, although insiders have told the news agency that a hybrid version of the Accord might be in the works.