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Can Hybrid Cars, Trucks, and SUVs Break Into the Mainstream?

It used to be that the only way to save mileage in America was to drive the equivalent of a motorized shopping cart. Although economy cars have come a long way since they were first introduced during the oil-starved seventies, real environmental achievement is only starting to crack the mainstream today. That’s because, for the first time perhaps, engineers at some of the world’s largest automotive firms are crafting hybrid vehicles that are not only energy-efficient, but also attractive and practical.

So, what do we mean by “hybrid vehicle”?

As most of us know by now, a hybrid vehicle utilizes both the typical propulsion system with the added flair of an on-board rechargeable energy storage system, sometimes called RESS. It blends the uber-environmentalism of a purely electric vehicle (which is limited by range) and your daddy’s standard gas guzzler.

Hybrid electric vehicles, or HEVs, often work by shutting off the internal combustion engine when idling. Since the vehicle doesn’t need to move when sitting in the driveway or at a red light, there’s no need to use the combustion engine. Once it’s time to get to work or the light changes green, the engine is restarted.

For most of the hybrid’s early development, the vehicles put on the road with the technology have been small, sometimes odd cars. Up to this point, the most recognizable hybrid rides have been the Toyota Prius and Honda Civic, both “boasting” economy size and space shuttle looks. Neither has spoken to the average American, the kind of driver who demands comfort and space for trips to the mall, baseball practice, and parking lot tailgate parties.
However, the times, they are ‘a changin’. Although Ford was not the first to pour resources into hybrid development, in recent years it has made some financial and finally retail moves to change that. In 2004, the blue oval agreed to a licensing deal with Toyota that brought a host of new hybrid ideas into the Ford fold, culminating in the 2005 release of the Ford Escape Hybrid.

Although the Escape Hybrid is no hulking pickup and should never be taken literally for its “Sport Utility Vehicle” title, the product itself does nicely blend power, fuel efficiency, and interior space. Combining a 133 horsepower gasoline engine with a 94 horsepower electric motor, the Escape Hybrid reaches the 200 HP plateau established by its traditional V6 counterpart. With such muscle under the hood, the Escape Hybrid can zip up to speed on highway on ramps while maintaining an impressive 31 miles per gallon (MPG).
Despite its abilities on the expressway, the Escape Hybrid shines the most on city streets. Of course, this is the complete opposite of most traditional vehicles, which struggle to conserve gas in stop-and-go rush hour traffic. Because the Escape Hybrid’s engine can disengage when stopped at a red light, it actually achieves better fuel mileage in the city. In fact, Ford’s enviro-friendly SUV can reach 36 MPG while weaving through busy city boulevards.
Although Ford’s Hybrid is impressive, it fails to completely “escape” the competition. That’s because other automotive companies are now weighing in with their own hybrid vehicles, including Toyota’s Highlander and Lexus’ elegant RX 400h. Toyota’s been at the forefront of hybrid development, and it shows with the Highlander. Current versions of the sport utility vehicle have utilized the company’s popular Hybrid Synergy Drive technology, which can be found under the hood of a few models, including the Prius, Camry, and even the aforementioned RX 400h. Although the current edition of the Highlander has impressed for its $33,000 price tag, the upcoming 2008 version boasts better fuel economy and a lower weight, with Toyota even rumoured to slash costs to the consumer.

The high end of the hybrid scale may be Lexus’ RX 400h, which was first introduced to the world during Detroit’s 2004 North American International Auto Show. The RX 400h uses Hybrid Synergy Drive technology, much like it poor-boy cousins the Prius and Highlander. However, at just under $50,000, consumers pay a great deal more for a vehicle boasting similar hardware.

With that said, the RX 400h does feature a more capable engine than the Escape or Highlander hybrids. Its 3.3L 3MZ-FE V6 combustion engine with Lexus Hybrid Drive technology combines for an impressive 272 horsepower, enough to blow by just about every other mainstream “green-mobile”. In fact, Lexus’ hybrid engine is quicker than the standard gas-powered counterpart, with the RX 400h reaching 60 miles per hour in less than eight seconds.

Despite the impressive showing of these suburbanite SUVs, they’re just not quite the same as a full-fledged pick-up. Thankfully, that’s been addressed, perhaps most notably by GMC with its Sierra Hybrid (introduced in 2005). Little sets this hulking beast apart from its traditional partner, and that’s a good thing. Visibly, the Sierra Hybrid is no different than the regular 1500. However, underneath it bleeds green, with an impressive integrated starter and generator (ISG) that shuts down the 295 horsepower combustion engine when idling. Once the driver steps on the gas, the Sierra revs back to life both quickly and efficiently.
Unfortunately, it seems the bigger the hybrid, the less the savings for now. Calculating 12,000 miles driven in a year, the extra cost at the dealer for a hybrid sometimes doesn’t lead to owners breaking even at the pumps. Although the smaller Toyota Prius has been found to bank owners about $400 a year in savings, larger vehicles like the RX 400h (2WD) and Sierra Hybrid (2WD) both lead to $112 and $496 deficits, respectively. (Source: cnet.com)
Fortunately, valuable tax incentives (revised in January, 2006) provide an interesting and valuable boost for owners. Those who purchase a hybrid vehicle can expect tax credits anywhere from $650 (for the Toyota Accord Hybrid) to a very impressive $2,600 for the 2WD edition of the Ford Escape Hybrid. (Source: hybridcars.com)

Most environmentally friendly vehicles, like those listed above, have received modest interest from the general public. However, hybrid passion is expected to increase over the next few years. Automotive manufacturers continue to evolve the technology, which is currently, surprisingly enough, still in its infancy. As prices at the pumps continue to soar, it could soon become very, very quiet at the average red light.