The Hot Hybrids

Detroit Scoffed, but the Gas/Electrics Are Here to Stay

With $1 billion in taxpayer money poured into the Partnership for a New Generation of Vehicles in the 1990s, Detroit’s Big Three developed a trio of hybrid vehicles (with both gasoline and electric drivetrains for maximum fuel economy). The resulting prototypes were shown off at auto shows, but the domestic automakers were steadfast in their refusal to actually produce these consumer-subsidized eco-cars. Why? No market for them, they said. Too expensive to build and no chance of making a profit, they added.

The Toyota Prius is a runaway bestseller, with long waiting lines.

What a difference a few years makes! By the summer of 2005, the Toyota Prius was one of the hottest vehicles on the market, with almost 10,000 being sold each month, long waiting lists, and buyers with cash-in-hand willing to pay $3,000 over list for used examples. "The Prius has achieved an almost iconic status with some buyers," reports USA Today.

Honda and Toyota had the hybrid market all to themselves for several years until the mid-2004 introduction of the Ford Escape Hybrid, which uses technology licensed from the Prius. General Motors has so far offered only a "hybrid" version of the big Chevrolet Silverado, complete with V-8 engine. GM claims that its hybrid offers a 10 to 15 percent fuel-economy improvement over the standard Silverado, but in practice it’s only a marginal improvement. The upcoming Saturn Vue hybrid should offer more competition for Japan.

Smoke Signals?

Model year 2005 was a wake-up call for Detroit, and the headlines about soaring gas prices told a shocking story. Fuel prices jumped almost overnight to more than $3 a gallon, egged on by Hurricane Katrina disruptions.

The hybrid market the pundits predicted would never get off the ground instead grew 960 percent from 2000 to 2005. More than 80,000 hybrids were registered in 2004, an 80 percent jump from 2003. That’s still less than one percent of the 17 million cars sold in the U.S. annually. But since 95 percent of the niche was occupied by Japanese companies it was enough to grab the attention of executives like the horsepower-loving Bob Lutz of GM, who admitted his company had missed the ball on hybrids. A dozen new hybrid introductions are expected by 2008.

Last July, Toyota’s U.S. Prius sales surpassed the total sales that month of Audi, Volvo or Saab. Last year, Toyota, which has complemented the Prius with a $34,430 Highlander SUV hybrid (and the RX 400h from the Lexus division) had 64 percent of the U.S. hybrid market. Toyota will probably double its Prius sales this year, with 100,000 or more cars. It must irk companies like Volvo that, despite their green image, they have no mileage champ to offer. It’s a fair bet that Volvo, which has shown hybrid prototypes, is now readying one for market.

Honda is in second place in the hybrid race, with 31 percent of the market last year. The Ford Escape Hybrid got off to a fairly slow start, capturing just three percent of the market last year.

How big can the hybrid market get? J.D. Power and Associates sees sales of 535,000 by 2010, but that’s assuming that automakers will still have to charge a premium price for them. Booz Allen Hamilton, another analyst firm, says that sales could top 3.5 million by then if no extra cost is involved. Toyota executives point out that almost all vehicles on the road could have hybrid drivetrains, and they anticipate selling a million a year.

What’s on the Road

The roomy $21,000 Prius needs little introduction here; it’s already well-known to most Americans. The Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) sticker on the Prius says it gets 60 mpg in the city and 51 on the highway, but in the real world expect 45 mpg overall. Some commentators have pointed out that hybrids deviate further from their EPA stickers than other vehicles, and they have a point.

The heart of the matter is a 76 horsepower gasoline engine coupled to a 67-horsepower electric motor, connecting to the road through a fuel-sipping continuously variable transmission (CVT). The current Prius was introduced in 2004; it’s a huge hit because it combines family sedan practicality with decent performance, space-age styling and lots of high-tech equipment and displays.

The Escape Hybrid, selling for a base price of $26,380, is the first credible "full" American hybrid (It was soon joined by the similar Mercury Mariner hybrid). Although, as they say, "actual mileage may vary," the Escape Hybrid achieves an EPA rating of 36 miles per gallon for city driving. That’s a 70 percent improvement over the conventional Escape V-6. It can travel 576 miles on a tank of fuel.

But there’s more to the Escape than just good fuel economy numbers. It’s also an emissions champ and a global warming fighter with carbon dioxide emissions halved because of its excellent mileage numbers.

In September, Ford announced that by 2010 it would be producing 250,000 hybrids annually, complementing its Escape and Mariner with hybrid Mercury Milan, Mazda Tribute and Ford Fusion models.

The Lexus RX 400h hybrid is for luxury and performance buyers.

Toyota’s Highlander and the Lexus RX 400h are cousins under the skin. The Highlander hybrid, otherwise very similar to standard Highlanders, offers 32 mpg in the city and 27 in town, which will save you $700 a year on gas. The extra $10,000 purchase price might be daunting, however.

The last thing you expect in a standard-looking midsized SUV like the $49,000 Lexus RX 400h is to start out on battery power, following the action on a Prius-like dash gauge. When the V-6 engine kicks in it offers 270 horsepower, propelling the car along to 60 mph in less than eight seconds. And that’s with 28 mpg fuel economy and the sought-after Super-Ultra-Low Emission Vehicle (SULEV) rating. The 400h feels like a big Prius, with the biggest difference being its more than 15 feet length and six-foot width.

Small is Beautiful

On the other end of the spectrum is the redesigned-for-2006 Honda Civic hybrid, which may not be flashy, but has many advantages. The federal www.fu eleconomy.gov website estimates annual fuel costs for the 2005 model at just $599, gives the car high tailpipe marks (it’s an ultra-low emissions vehicle), and a stellar 3.1 rating (near the top) in terms of greenhouse gas production.

With the optional continuously variable (CVT) transmission, the $21,000 Civic Hybrid will deliver EPA mileage of 50 miles per gallon in both the city and the highway. Power comes from a 1.3-liter, four-cylinder gas engine and a lightweight electric motor, producing a combined 110 horsepower (a 23 percent increase over 2005). For 2006 the Civic can cruise in electric-only mode.

The Civic’s big brother is the $27,000 Accord Hybrid, which produces 255 horsepower, 15 more than the regular V-6 model. And it offers this power boost along with 30 mpg in the city, 37 on the highway (compared to 21/30 for a standard Accord).

Consider a PZEV

If you can’t afford the extra cost of a hybrid, consider a Partial-Zero Emission Vehicle (PZEV). PZEVs are versions of standard cars with tailpipes as clean as the highly rated Prius. Automakers are currently selling ultra-clean PZEVs in all the states (mostly in th

e Northeast, with the Northwest pending) that have endorsed the California emissions rules.

"Partial zero" translates as a 97 percent reduction in hydrocarbons and nitrogen oxides over the average 2005 car. The Ford Focus PZEV, which has the advantage of being available in all 50 states, starts around $13,000.

JIM MOTAVALLI is editor of E.