Not long ago, hybrid cars were little more than novelties, pudgy little things driven by high-minded ex-hippies with peace stickers plastered all over the bumpers. But those days are long gone. Today's hybrids can be sleek, stylish, and fast, and with the price of gasoline soaring toward $4 per gallon in the United States, they are increasingly attractive economically.
In a stunning development that shows just how attractive, Toyota announced that the Camry Hybrid outsold the Camry powered by a V6 gas engine in the month of March. That underscores the major shift rapidly taking place in consumer preferences. That move toward smaller and hybrid vehicles caught GM and Ford flat-footed, according to a report from National Public Radio. Both fell far behind in manufacturing capacity, and neither had a sufficient supply of hybrid batteries. GM officials believe the demand will continue. By the year 2020, more than 80 percent of GM's cars will be hybrids, according to Bob Lutz, vice-chairman of global product development. A recently released report from AAA indicates that gas mileage has already become the number one consideration for American consumers in choosing a new vehicle.
Toyota continues to grab market share with perhaps the best-known hybrid, the Prius, but the competition is heating up across the board. GM now offers a hybrid, the Cadillac Escalade, which is a major breakthrough in size, comfort, style, and "street cool," powered by a hybrid engine. GM also offers a hybrid Tahoe, while Ford goes small in offering the Escape Hybrid. Leading the luxury hybrids is the 2008 Lexus LS600hL. It is powered by a 5.0-liter V8 hybrid engine, which produces 438 horsepower while still receiving 20 mpg in the city and 22 mpg on the highway. Moreover, the LS600hL still comes with every luxury imaginable east of Rodeo Drive.
One start-up company (will there be more?), Fisker Coachbuilder, is creating a hybrid engine that, in theory, needs to be filled with gas only once a year. "The environment is captivating the attention of the world," explains Henrik Fisker, Fisker Coachbuilders's CEO. "Developing a premium luxury green car, which also delivers attractive design, can make a difference by making less of an impact on global warming."
How Hybrids Work
Dr. Ferdinand Porsche first invented the hybrid in 1899. Today, hybrids have a gasoline and an electric engine that work together. Large batteries, usually found in the trunk, power the electric engine.
The batteries are charged by the engine's generator. The electric engine powers the vehicle when it's standing still and starting. The gasoline engine turns off when the car is stopped, thus greatly reducing emissions, and kicks in when the car needs extra torque.
How efficient are hybrids? Consider this example. The Toyota Prius is powered by a 1.5-liter 4-cylinder hybrid engine and is EPA-tested at 48 mpg in the city and 45 mpg on the highway. Toyota uses the same gas engine as the Yaris model (non-hybrid), which was EPA-tested at 29 mpg in the city and 36 mpg on the highway. The Yaris model is one of the most efficient gas engines on the road, yet the hybrid outperformed it by 19 mpg in the city and 9 mpg on the highway.
A step beyond hybrids is the all-electric car. Although electric cars have been around for decades -- built mostly by individuals in their garages -- auto manufacturers have been slow to develop them. One that is being designed now is the GM Volt, which may not be on the market until late in 2010. However, a start-up in the San Francisco Bay Area, Tesla Motors, has created a limited number of high-performance all-electric vehicles, called the Tesla Roadster. The Roadster accelerates from zero to 60 mph in just 3.9 seconds, according to the company. That's faster than a Ferrari F430 and Lamborghini LP640! The Tesla Roadster is powered by a three-phase, four-pole electric motor that creates 248 horsepower (185kW). Once fully charged, the car reportedly receives about 220 miles per charge.
More Hybrids Planned
Rising fuel prices will, no doubt, accelerate the development of hybrid cars. Alternative fuel sources, particularly cellulosic ethanol, which avoids all the drawbacks of corn ethanol, may ultimately supplant gasoline, but in the meantime, hybrids offer an immediate relief from pump prices.
As of the first of April, the nationwide gas average was $3.37, although some cities have seen prices top $4 per gallon. That's a bargain compared to other parts of the world. In England and Hong Kong, prices have topped $5.60 U.S. dollars per gallon, while a gallon costs $4.86 in Rome, and $3.84 in Tokyo but only $0.14 in oil-rich Venezuela!
Here is a look at what some of the other carmakers are doing to meet the hybrid demand. BMW's Hydrogen 7 experimental car, which garnered attention after being test-driven by a host of celebrities, just passed the U.S. Department of Energy's Ultra Low-Emission Vehicle Standards. No word yet on when the car will be available to consumers. BMW also announced that it is creating a battery-powered car for the U.S. market and available by 2012. Honda is reportedly working on a subcompact hybrid that will be priced below its Civic Hybrid. It will use nickel metal hydride batteries and take its design from the sleek Honda FCX Clarity. It is scheduled to make its debut next year. Hyundai revealed plans to mass-produce hybrids by 2009. The first model will be designed like the Avante. PSA/Peugeot-Citroen said it will make "micro-hybrids" mostly for European consumers by 2010.
These may be too small for most American's tastes, but as designs and tastes evolve in the car market, who knows?
• Toyota Camry
• Saturn Vue
• Toyota Highlander Hybrid
• Mercury Mariner Premier
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