Hybrids Come of Age

Green cars are becoming more popular, offering better gas mileage and more brand options.

October 1, 2003

There are gasoline shortages in Phoenix. Fuel prices surge past $2 a gallon in California. Uncertainty in the Middle East threatens U.S. oil supplies.

It’s not surprising that American motorists have been getting jittery reading the latest headlines—or that there’s a growing interest in fuel economy. Indeed, a new survey by the market research firm J.D. Power and Associates shows that mileage is one of the top factors U.S. car buyers are considering these days, the first time that’s happened since the energy crisis of the 1970s.

There are still plenty of motorists who think bigger is better, and sales of SUVs and full-size pickups continue to run at or near record levels. But for those who want to curb fuel consumption—whether to stretch the budget or to be kinder to Mother Nature—one of the more notable trends for 2004 is the move of hybrid-electric vehicles (HEV) into the mainstream.

HEVs combine two forms of power under one hood. Honda’s teardrop-shaped Insight, the first of its breed to hit the U.S. highway, is a good example. The two-seater’s primary power comes from a modest, 1.3-liter gasoline engine. But that’s mated to an electric motor that serves multiple purposes. It replaces both the starter and generator, for one thing, and it can recapture energy normally lost during braking or coasting. Stored in a small battery pack, that power can then be used during hard acceleration to boost performance, as a sort of electric supercharger.

Insight delivers as much as 68 mpg in city driving, though its unusual shape limits versatility—and demand. Honda took aim at a more mainstream market when it launched an HEV version of the Civic last year.

That’s the same strategy behind the second-generation Toyota Prius. Toyota’s little sedan was actually the first production HEV, although it arrived in the United States shortly after the Insight. The original car wasn’t much of a hit, with analysts blaming factors such as price and its awkward design. The 2004 model is notably more stylish and offers more functionality. And it boasts features not available on the Insight.

Like the Honda, the Prius’ gas engine shuts off when you come to a stop, say, at a red light. When it’s time to get going, Insight’s engine automatically restarts. But with the Prius, the car will actually operate solely on electric power at low speeds. When you pass a set speed, or when the battery pack runs low, the gasoline engine takes over.

There will be a number of other new hybrids hitting the market in the coming months. From Toyota’s high-line Lexus division, there’s the RX330 HEV. It uses a similar drivetrain to the Prius, but it has a larger engine and puts an emphasis on performance, even while boosting mileage.

Ford, meanwhile, is taking dead aim at the hottest segment of the market with its new Escape HEV. Featuring a powertrain package very similar to the one in the first-generation Prius, this compact sport-ute is the first hybrid into the light truck segment. But it won’t be alone for long. General Motors will soon follow with an HEV version of its full-size pickups, including the Chevrolet Silverado. And they’ll have added appeal at a work or campsite, since the powertrain can be switched into generator mode, providing plenty of 110-volt power.

While hybrids have drawn plenty of press, there also are a good number of skeptics. They complain that some of the early hybrids haven’t delivered nearly as much an improvement in fuel efficiency as claimed. And they insist it is hard to make the technology pay off on the bottom line. Even though manufacturers are not passing the entire cost of this complex technology onto consumers, the typical price penalty has been at least $3,000 compared to a conventionally-powered vehicle. Even at $2 a gallon, you’d have to drive a Prius more than a thousand miles a week for at least a decade to make up the added cost by lowering your fuel bill.

Diesel-Powered Vehicles Are Coming

The debate over fuel economy and reduced emissions has lent growing support for diesel-powered vehicles. Not the diesels you might recall from the 1980s, which were slow, noisy, and foul smelling. New, direct-injection, turbocharged diesels provide about the same comfort and convenience as gasoline engines—along with as much as 35 percent better gas mileage. They’re also cheaper than HEVs and better at towing. But finding diesel fuel in the United States isn’t easy. Few gas stations pump it.

Although the latest generation of diesels accounts for nearly half of current auto sales in Europe, there are only a handful of models available in the U.S. market. Still, Volkswagen can’t keep up with U.S. demand for diesel-powered passenger cars, such as the Golf and Passat, and it will add a well-reviewed V-10 turbodiesel to the Touareg option package next spring. A Mercedes-Benz diesel is coming, while Chrysler promises one for its Jeep Liberty. And other manufacturers insist that if demand picks up, they’ll follow with offerings of their own.

Paul A. Eisenstein is publisher of The Detroit Bureau. He has more than 30 years of experience covering the auto industry for a broad range of print, broadcast, and electronic media.

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