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Week of 6.9.06

In Depth: The Rise of the Hybrid

As gas prices continue to rise and politicians look for ways to curb our addiction to oil, hybrid vehicles are making a bit of a splash.

Animation: How Hybrid Cars Work
Animation: How Hybrid Cars Work
Sales of hybrids have continued to rise since Honda introduced the Insight -- the first gas/electric hybrid to debut on the America market back in 1999. Since then, hybrids have taken off -- last year sales increased by about 135 percent, according to Hybridcars.com, a Web site that provides information about hybrid vehicles.

Most of the hybrid vehicles offered today are powered by internal combustion engines, but they are also equipped with batteries that recharge while driving and an electric motor to help with power demand.

Making a Statement

Hybrids, which do not need to be plugged in, deliver better mileage compared to their gas-only counterparts. But Lonnie Miller, an industry analyst at R.L Polk says Hybrid buyers are purchasing on principle. "Hybrid buyers want the cars for the statement that they're making in terms of thinking of the environment and weaning off oil," Miller told NOW.

While the cars are considered an environmentally-friendly alternative to traditional internal combustion vehicles, they still cost a few thousand dollars more than their traditional counterparts.

Paul Lacy, an auto analyst with Global Insight, says hybrids are cost effective more so for for stop-and-start driving than long-range driving. "If you're doing highway driving it will take a great deal of time to recover the premium costs," he said. He also explains that hybrids have lower emissions primarily because in most cases the engine shuts off when the car stops, so it does not idle.

Accelerating Sales

   
*Jan-May 2006. Source: Hybridcars.com
Hybrids represent about one percent of all new vehicle registrations in the U.S. Last year, some 205,749 hybrid vehicles, more than half of which were Toyotas, were sold in the U.S. market, according to Bradley Berman, the editor of Hybrids.com.

That number may be on the rise. In a recent poll by R.L. Polk some 84 percent of respondents said they would consider purchasing a hybrid. But some analysts choose to wait and see.

"It's still anyone's game, you are at the beginning of the product curve. I expect under five percent of new vehicle sales in 2010 in the U.S. will be hybrids," Miller said.

Toyota, betting on increased demand, is forecasting sales of some one million hybrid vehicles by 2010. New subsidies by the government -- which range from $250 to $3,150 per hybrid based on the vehicle's gas mileage -- could help boost sales.

A faster ride to work might explain why California had the highest sales of hybrid vehicles in 2005.

California, like some other states, offers drivers incentives to purchase hybrids, such as a spot in the carpool lane even when there are no passengers.

The Road Ahead

Analysts suggest that the success of competing technologies could change the future of gas/electric hybrids and a second generation of hybrids may emerge. What remains to be seen is how technologies related to diesel, hydrogen and ethanol, for example, evolve in the coming years.

So how well do hybrids perform? Popular Mechanics magazine took two popular hybrids to the test to find out how well they compared to their gas-powered siblings. Here's what they had to say:

Honda Civic Hybrid
Photo Gallery: Top-Selling Hybrid Cars
Honda Civic Hybrid

"Now in its second generation, the Civic Hybrid has a revised 1.3-liter four-cylinder engine paired to a more powerful electric motor for 18 percent more power than before. But it's still one of the slowest-accelerating vehicles on the road. Once moving, the Civic Hybrid is almost as nimble as the Civic EX and posted similar numbers in our handling tests. On the street, this car is quiet and rides a bit smoother than the Civic EX. The Civic cannot accelerate from a stop solely on electric power. But it can run electric-only once cruising--if you're easy on the gas pedal. And that's a problem: On long freeway upgrades the Civic runs the batteries empty and leaves you with only 1.3 liters of gas power. We averaged 41 mpg overall. Impressive, yes. But, we're not convinced it's worth paying $1800 more for a car that's slower and gets only moderately better mileage than its conventional sibling."

Toyota Highlander Limited Hybrid

"Our front-drive Highlander Hybrid Limited was more fun to drive, handled better and Like its Lexus counterpart, RX 400h, the Highlander Hybrid was created to offer both improved fuel economy and performance. It worked: Our front-drive Highlander Hybrid Limited was more fun to drive, handled better and had appreciably better fuel economy than the gas version. Anyone who thinks hybrids are all hype should drive this SUV. It has enough oomph to chirp the front tires and hustle this hybrid to 60 mph almost a second more quickly than its gas-only counterpart. Unlike Honda's, Toyota's hybrid system adds considerable weight to the package: 360 pounds. But you never know the weight is there. In fact, our Highlander Hybrid posted better handling numbers than the regular one. That big electric motor acts like an instant-on turbo when you want to pass. Best of all, the Highlander averaged almost 29 mpg--better than many midsize sedans--and it used about half as much fuel in our city loop as its gas-powered sister. In our book, spending the extra $4500 is worth it."

For more see Popular Mechanics "Hybrids at the Crossroads," February 2006

For more on hybrid vehicles visit Hybridcars.com