As the Senate gears up to debate the fuel economy of sport-utility vehicles and pickups, a senior Ford Motor Co. executive said the No. 2 automaker aims to sell "tens of thousands" of a small, fuel-efficient Escape SUVs powered by a gasoline-electric "hybrid" propulsion system, according to published reports in the Detroit Free Press and the New York Times. The vehicle is expected to deliver nearly 40 miles per gallon of gas in city driving. Hybrids could be the answer to many fuel economy and environmental concerns, a panel of automotive, government and environmental experts said March 6. "I think there was a definite consensus among all of us that hybrids offer tremendous promise," Jason Mark, director of the clean vehicle program for the Union of Concerned Scientists, said at the Society of Automotive Engineers World Congress at the Cobo Center in Detroit. During the panel discussion, Toyota board member Masatami Takimoto hinted that the next hybrid vehicle to be produced by the Japanese automaker would likely be a sport utility vehicle. Honda Motor Co. has announced it is coming out with a hybrid Honda Civic in April that will be priced around $20,000. General Motors Corp. and DaimlerChrysler AG's Chrysler Group plan to sell hybrid trucks in 2004. A J.D. Power consumer survey found that 60 percent of potential new-car buyers would consider purchasing a hybrid vehicle, unless it was significantly more expensive than a comparable vehicle powered by an internal combustion engine. "We are encouraged with the results of this customer survey showing strong potential for hybrid electric vehicles," said Ford spokesman Prabhakar Patil. "Our own customer research shows similar enthusiasm, especially for a hybrid SUV. When Ford's Escape Hybrid SUV is introduced in 2003 it will deliver nearly 40 mpg fuel economy in a no-compromise vehicle with the same driving performance and features that have made the Escape a top-seller."