Wednesday, December 27, 2006

Is a hybrid right for you?

Gas-electric hybrid cars are turning out to be hot sellers. Would it make sense for you?

Peter Valdes-Dapena, CNN/Money staff writer

NEW YORK (CNN/Money) - High-rolling exotic car aficionados are familiar the idea of months-long waiting lists for new models. Now gas-sippers are joining the rubber-scorchers as waiting lists for the keep getting longer.

Are they worth the wait?

In a purely economic sense, it's difficult to make the case for hs. The added cost of the vehicle and possibly faster depreciation -- it's too soon to know how they'll fare in the resale market -- could quickly soak up any fuel-related savings. The $1,500 tax deduction available of gas-electric hybrid vehicles does help, but remember, that's a deduction not a credit so it might save you about $300 on your tax bill.

There are a lot of other factors to consider. People make far sillier car purchases for reasons of public image and trendiness all the time.

To decide how much sense it makes, start by asking yourself these questions.

Drive much?

The less you drive, the longer it's going to take to make up the added cost of a hybrid as compared to a similar non-hybrid car.

Official government estimates give the Prius 60 miles to the gallon in city driving and 51 on the highway. (Please don't write in to tell us those numbers are backward. Hybrids get better mileage in the city than on the highway.) Those figures are EPA estimates, though. Your mileage may vary, as they say.

But you pay a lot for that fuel efficiency. To see how much more, consider the hybrid version of the Honda Civic and upcoming Ford Escape SUV, which both cost about $3,200 more than their respective non-hybrid versions.

To make up the difference in price, Kelley Blue Book estimated that the average Civic Hybrid driver would have to travel at least 180,000 miles, assuming $2.15 a gallon of gas. (If gas prices stay lower than that, you'd have to drive even more to make up the difference.)

What's the premium for a Prius? There is no non-hybrid Prius with which to make a comparison. But in terms of size and interior space, the most similar car in the Toyota line-up is the Camry (though Prius shoppers are more likely to also research the Corolla, according to data from

The Prius costs about $2,200 more than a base four-cylinder Camry with an automatic transmission. The difference in fuel efficiency between the Camry and Prius is greater than that between the Honda Civics. It would take 60,000 miles of driving, an amount the average driver covers in about 4 years, to cover the additional cost of the Prius over a Camry LE, according to calculations provided by Kelley Blue Book.

Have a really lousy commute?

If you spend lots of time plying America's broad ribbons of interstate, you'll get a lot less savings from a hybrid than you might think. Unlike non-s, the Prius is more efficient in stop-and-go city driving than in steady highway cruising. (The Civic Hybrid, which uses a very different hybrid set-up from the Prius, has nearly the same mileage in city and highway driving.)

Since electric motors are better than gasoline engines at supplying low-speed acceleration, the electric motor is does a large part of the work when starting from a dead stop. When the car is up to cruising speed, the gasoline engine takes over completely. Whenever a hybrid car is stopped, in fact, the gasoline is often turned off altogether.

Getting the possible best mileage from a Prius requires some counter-intuitive use of the gas pedal, said James Bell, a Prius owner and director of sales for automotive data company IntelliChoice. Slowing down and speeding up a lot actually improves his highway mileage, he said.

The does not, evidently, get better mileage in all sorts of city driving. Some cities are tougher than others. In several test drives by a CNN/Money staffer, the Prius averaged about 30 miles to the gallon in mid-town Manhattan's rush hour crunch and about 45 miles to the gallon in a more normal mix of highway and suburban driving, according the vehicle's own mileage tracking computer. (For more, see our full report.)

It's smoggy out. Do you care?

If you're just interested in saving money on gas, a diesel might make more sense. A turbo-diesel Volkswagen, for example, gets much better gas mileage than a car with a gasoline engine without resorting to complex, expensive electrical technology.

Hybrids already coming:

Vehicle Available
Ford Escape hybrid Fall, 2004
Lexus RX400 h Fall, 2004
GMC Sierra 1500 hybrid Fall, 2004 (fleet only)
Dodge Ram hybrid Fall, 2004 (fleet only)
Honda Accord hybrid Fall, 2004
Toyota Highlander hybrid Early 2005
Saturn VUE hybrid Not announced

The Volkswagen Jetta TDI gets an EPA estimated 41 mpg overall compared to an overall 24 mpg for the a Jetta with the 1.8 liter regular gasoline engine. While not as good as a hybrid car, the Jetta TDI's fuel mileage is still outstanding.

The Jetta TDI will also contribute less to possible global warming problems than the standard car. The diesel produces 5.1 tons of greenhouse gases a year, according to EPA estimates. That might sound like a lot, but the standard-engined Jetta produces 2.8 tons more each year.

(Picture Left: A "Hybrid" badge is one of the few, subtle marks that a Honda Civic Hybrid is different.)

The hybrid Prius produces even less, though, at just 3.5 tons. And when it comes to air pollution in general, the Prius rates a nine or 10 out on the EPA's 10-point scale depending on the state where it's purchased. The Jetta TDI earns a rating of just four.

So if you're concerned about the impact your driving has on the environment, diesels still aren't as clean as hybrids in spite of recent advances in diesel technology. If you just want to save gas, a diesel will get you much better mileage than a standard gasoline engine without all the added cost and complexity of a hybrid.

Do you care who knows?

There are more hybrid options out there than just the Prius and more are on the way. But it's the Prius that leaps to mind when the word "hybrid" is mentioned.

To some degree, that arises from the fact that the Prius is available only as a hybrid and, frankly, it looks like a hybrid car. Its most similar competitor, the Civic Hybrid, looks little different from a regular, "all combustion, all the time" Honda Civic.

That may limit the appeal of the Civic. Other than an upturned lip on the trunk to improve aerodynamics and a special badge, there's little on a Civic Hybrid to let the world know that you're driving a hybrid. If you're trying to send a message, the Civic Hybrid sends it only as far as the car that's tailgating you.

The Prius distinctive appearance was important to Bell of IntelliChoice, for instance. He felt it was important that people see him as knowledgeable about the latest automotive technology and the Prius was sort of a rolling billboard for that.

"There's a ton of Civics driving around," he said.

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Saturday, December 16, 2006

Hopes high for Japan's hybrid cars

From CNN's Technology Correspondent Kristie Lu Stout

HONG KONG, China (CNN) -- gasoline-electric cars have been getting off to a slow start, but in Japan hopes are high that the latest clean machines will outpace the gas guzzlers.

At Toyota's fifth environmental forum in Tokyo, the carmaker is driving home a simple message -- the hybrid is still hot.

"We have continued to pursue development of technology as a versatile power source, as the core technology for eco-car development," says Toyota Motor Corp president, Fujio Cho.

cars take in both climate-heating gas and eco-friendly electricity, emitting as much as 40 percent less carbon dioxide than the usual internal-combustion engine.

U.S. automakers Ford and General Motors have plans to roll out cars in the next two years. The only ones on the market today are built by Japan's Honda and Toyota.

Launched back in 1997, Toyota's Prius was the first on the block. These days, the company is kicking the tires of a new and improved version.

The Prius 2004, analysts say, is bigger, faster and cleaner than the original.

"The next generation Prius is exciting technology. Its proof that technology can deliver both better performance as well as better environmental protection," Jason Mark, Director at the Union of Concerned Scientists says.

Cho is optimistic about the new model, which will go on sale later this year in Japan, Europe and the U.S.

"Toyota has sold only 140,000 hatchbacks around the world. To spur demand, the carmaker is banking on more choice," he says.

Toyota aims to achieve this by boosting its hybrid model range to six in the next three years -- a range that includes a minivan, a luxury car, even a SUV, which is the vehicle class that has provoked the ire of environmentalists.

Also in the pipeline is a city bus, which will start service on the streets of Tokyo later this year.

The market for electric cars is expected to grow from 100,000 a year to 500,000 by 2008. Its a sizeable increase, but it is still a tiny market.

There are about 70 million cars on the road in Japan right now and it will take some time for this clean machine to go bumper to bumper with the gas guzzlers.

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Saturday, December 09, 2006

Honda, Toyota missing from White House 'hybrid car' event

Not ready to roll: Domestic prototypes only

From Major Garrett, CNN White House Correspondent

WASHINGTON (CNN) -- Japanese automakers and ran into a dead end at the White House Monday, when they were excluded from a high-profile promotion, intended to showcase vehicles that run on cleaner, alternative-style engines.

A executive complained about the exclusion to CNN, but White House Press Secretary Ari Fleischer said the event was organized by domestic automakers. "My understanding is this event was set up in connection with domestic producers of automobiles, and I don't think it's any reflection beyond that," Fleischer said. "It was just the hosts of this event were the domestic producers."

and make so-called " vehicles," models of which are already on the road. That's in contrast to the automakers invited to the White House; their models aren't available to consumers yet.

President Bush and top Cabinet officials inspected vehicles brought to the South Lawn for the event. The White House said Bush wanted to highlight $3 billion in proposed tax credits for the purchase of vehicles -- which use both electricity and gas -- as a means of improving energy conservation and reducing pollution.

The vehicles the White House featured -- the Chevy Silverado, the Ford Escape and Daimler-Chrysler's Town and Country Natrium -- are not commercially available and aren't expected to be in showrooms for at least 18 months.

The Toyota Prius and Insight -- which weren't featured in the administration's showcase -- are available now. The Prius has a four-cylinder engine combined with an electric motor and gets 52 miles per gallon in the city and 45 miles per gallon on the highway.

The Insight combines a three-cylinder engine with a tiny electric motor. It's the most fuel-efficient vehicle on the market, getting 61 miles per gallon in the city and 70 miles per gallon on the highway, according to the Department of Energy.

Drives right past Japanese cars

In his remarks, the president pointed to the potential of domestically produced vehicles, but did not point out that there were Japanese vehicles already on the market.

"Hybrid cars, the likes of which we just saw over there, are already in existence," Bush said. "They run on a mixture of gas and electric power. They are several times more fuel-efficient than most cars on the road today. I was told by the representatives of the manufacturing companies that more and more cars will be available in the marketplace next year."

Fleischer warned against reading anything into the exclusion of and from the event.

"As far as the president is concerned, the consumers should have a choice of whichever vehicle the consumer wants to purchase," he said. "And the president wants to generally promote the use of fuel vehicles as a way of promoting conservation."

Pressed about the "domestic" nature of the event, Fleischer conceded that international car companies have plants in the United States, as this country does abroad.

"Obviously, it's a very integrated world," he said.

White House officials did not deny the sales value of videotape showing Bush, Energy Secretary Spencer Abraham and Environmental Protection Agency Director Christie Whitman inspecting the three domestically produced vehicles.

(Picture Above: The Honda Insight, left and the Toyota Prius)

Still, White House Communications Director Dan Bartlett denied any effort to intentionally exclude the Japanese automakers.

"It's not a slight of any sort," Bartlett said. "I sat in on several meetings and I never heard anyone say we should exclude foreign-owned companies."

Asked if he thought that omitting and was an oversight, Bartlett said: "I really can't comment, not without having all the facts."

Ed Cohen, vice president of North America, told CNN he first heard of the hybrid car event on Friday and called the White House's Council on Environmental Quality seeking someone to talk to about participating in the event, but was unable to reach anyone. Cohen said he left a message but no one from the White House called back.

"It's all well and good to demonstrate concept cars, but we have the cars on the road now," said Cohen. "If the purpose of the event is to demonstrate new technology that has the potential to reduce fuel consumption and pollution, we have the cars now. This is old thinking. We're all global companies now."

Cohen also said showrooms will soon feature the Civic , which will average 50 miles per gallon and be available in hybrid and natural gas-powered models.

On the South Lawn

The three vehicles featured at the White House all combine electric motors with standard internal combustion engines.

The Chevy Silverado, GMC Sierra truck combines an electric motor and a conventional V-8 engine. It's to be available in model year 2004.

The Ford Escape HEV ( electric vehicle) combines an electric motor with a fuel-efficient gas engine. It touts acceleration comparable to a 200-horsepower engine and 40 miles per gallon in the city. It's to be available in model year 2004.

The Town and Country Natrium, made by Daimler-Chrysler, is a fuel-cell minivan that produces no tailpipe emissions -- meaning no carbon dioxide, no carbon monoxide and no hydrocarbons. There was no estimate provided by the company on when this vehicle might be available for purchase.

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Saturday, December 02, 2006

Hybrid cars gain star power

By Peter Viles

LOS ANGELES, California (CNN) -- California has the ultimate car culture -- it is often said that there, you are what you drive.

California is also a capital of air pollution, and of efforts to cut down auto emissions. Put those three factors together and you have an unusual trend: a status symbol in reverse -- a cool car that is not exactly a high-performance vehicle.

Car salesman Chris Cutright has sold so-called 'hybrid' cars to many Hollywood stars.

"I sold Cameron Diaz her car; Leonardo DiCaprio has bought three Prius' from us, we're talking to Alec Baldwin right now, he's certainly interested in the car," Cutright said.

The Toyota Prius runs on both petrol and electric power. It is Toyota's entry in the race to develop mass-produced, low-emissions cars. But it is not cheap. The Prius is smaller than the Toyota Corolla, sold for less than $14,000, but costs 50 percent more at $21,000.

(Picture Right: The appearance of the Prius gives stars a 'veil' to hide behind)

Toyota plan to use the hybrid technology in future models.

Expectations of developing electric cars have faded as the cars are too expensive and need constant charging. Chrysler is developing the hydrogen-powered fuel cell car, but they are years from mass production.

Stars appreciate the Prius for its discreet appearance.

Baldwin said: "The Prius is a great public relations veil, it's a shroud I can wear that will hide me. No one would ever dream I would be the guy behind the wheel of that car, that's great."

But in Los Angeles, you are what you what are you if you drive this quiet little car?

For Baldwin, "you're a genius with foresight, you are a far seeing genius."

"Certainly somebody who's environmentally conscious," Cutright said.

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Wednesday, November 22, 2006

GM likely to launch new plug-in hybrid

Vehicle will be unveiled at the Detroit Auto Show, newspaper says, citing company officials.

DETROIT (Reuters) -- General Motors Corp. will likely unveil a prototype plug-in at the North American International Auto Show in Detroit in January, a local paper reported Friday.

The advanced technology vehicle would have an extended driving range on battery power and would also have a diesel or gasoline engine that could power the car when the battery was low, the Detroit News said, citing unnamed GM officials.

Plug-in s are gas-electric vehicles that can recharge their batteries with an extension cord and a normal wall outlet.

GM, which is trying to recover from a $10.6 billion loss in 2005 and stop a slide in U.S. market share, has been criticized for relying heavily on gas-guzzling sport utility vehicles. This year, it has also drawn sharp criticism for its decision to kill its EV1 electric car program.

The EV1 was introduced at the 1997 Los Angeles Auto Show and leased to selected customers. But GM pulled the plug on the project in 2002, citing insufficient public support.

The automaker eventually collected and destroyed almost all of the 1,000 EV1 cars, prompting the making of a documentary titled "Who Killed the ?"

The film was released this summer to wide acclaim from environmentalists and others concerned about the country's dependence on oil.

In an interview with Motor Trend published in July, GM Chief Executive Rick Wagoner said killing the $1 billion EV1 program was his worst decision. He said it did not affect the automaker's profitability, but did hurt its image.

The Detroit News said Wagoner will talk about GM's emphasis on advanced technologies in a speech he plans to deliver at the Los Angeles Auto Show later this month.

Other automakers are also researching plug-in technology, including Toyota Motor Corp., the world's leading producer of hybrid vehicles.

Honda Motor Co. Ltd. has also called for exploring plug-ins and is conducting advanced research on hydrogen.

Ford Motor Co. has a fleet of hybrid hydrogen fuel cell vehicles as part of "real world testing of fuel cell technology."

Gallery: Consumer Reports' Most Reliable Cars

Source: CNN dot com

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Saturday, November 18, 2006

Most fuel-efficient cars for 2006

s and diesels tops in EPA's new Fuel Economy Guide. top SUV.

NEW YORK (CNN/Money) - The , a gas-electric car, edged out the as the most fuel-efficient vehicle in the U.S., according to new mileage ratings from the Environmental Protection Agency and the Department of Energy.

Both get an estimated 60 miles per gallon in city driving.

The , a two-seat car, gets an estimated 66 miles an gallon on the highway, though, while the Prius gets 55 miles per gallon.

The , a car that's classified as mid-sized, uses a different system that delivers better mileage in stop-and-go driving than in steady highway cruising.

The EPA's fuel economy figures are based on laboratory tests. Drivers in real-world conditions generally report lower actual mileage.

Mileage estimates for the redesigned 2006 Honda Civic are not yet available. The 2005 version ranked fourth overall last year, behind two versions of the Insight and the .

The is the most efficient "mid-sized" sedan by a wide margin. The Hyundai Elantra is listed as the most efficient non- mid-sized sedan. It gets an estimated 34 miles per gallon on the highway and 27 in the city.

Diesel-powered cars from Volkswagen took the top spots in the "compact" and "sub-compact" car categories. The diesel VW Beetle with manual transmission is the most efficient sub-compact and the VW Golf diesel, which is built on the same vehicle structure as the Beetle, is the most efficient compact. Both get an estimated 44 mpg on the highway and 37 in the city.

The Beetle and Golf tied for third in overall mileage rankings.

Among SUVs, the is the most efficient. It gets 36 mpg in city driving and 31 on the highway.

The Mercury Mariner and Mazda Tribute are very similar and get the same mileage. All tied for eighth in overall mileage rankings.

Top 10 vehicles overall:

1. () -- 60/66
2. (hybrid) -- 60/51
3. Volkswagen New Beetle and Golf (diesel, manual) -- 37/44
4. Volkswagen Jetta (diesel) -- 36/41
5. Ford Escape FWD -- 36/31
6. Volkswagen New Beetle and Jetta(diesel, automatic) -- 35/42
7. Volkswagen Golf (diesel, automatic) -- 33/44
8. 4WD (Also Mazda Tribute and Mercury Mariner 4WD s) -- 33/29
9. Lexus RX 400h 2WD and Toyota Highlander 2WD -- 33/28
10. Toyota Corolla (manual) -- 32/41

Taken from cnn dot com

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Friday, November 10, 2006

BMW invents steam-powered hybrid system

Turbosteamer turns engine heat into steam which is used to boost power and efficiency.

NEW YORK ( - Engineers at BMW have created a new type of powertrain for cars. Instead of electricity, though, this system relies on steam power to boost the engine's performance and save fuel.

About 35 percent of the energy created when an engine burns gasoline is lost as heat, according to the book "The Isaac Newton School of Driving: Physics and Your Car," by Barry Parker.

BMW's Turbosteamer system relies on a heating unit that replaces the muffler. It heats water to temperatures up to 550 degrees. The resultant steam is then carried to what is essentially a small steam engine.

With much of its heat energy converted to motion in the engine, the cooler steam -- now about 150 to 200 degrees -- goes through a system that combines the steam's heat with heat from the car's regular cooling system.

That second system is used to operate another, lower temperature, motor that further boosts the car's power.

A more refined system may be ready for production in about 10 years, the company said.

Taken from CNN dot com

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Thursday, November 02, 2006

Hybrid Cars Quietly Take to the Road: Autos Save Gas, Easy to Drive

by Michael Taylor, Chronicle Staff Writer

It's a typical Monday morning, and here's the Doughty Commuter in his 1998 verstuffed V8-engine SUV, fearlessly slogging along with 140,000 other commuters as they creep-crawl their way toward the Bay Bridge toll booths.

The Overstuffed's V8, a wise and proven if overly thirsty design, is idling away, slurping up the $2-a-gallon fine stuff. The Doughty Commuter is watching his fuel gauge sink sadly toward the bottom, nearly as fast as last week's Nasdaq.

But in the next lane over, what do we have here? This silent little bug of a car, and we do mean silent. It is a -- or it could be a -- and it is driven by a hybrid power train, a combination of gasoline-powered engine and electric motor.

Depending on the model, it gets anywhere from 45 to 68 miles per gallon, as much as five times the efficiency of the Overstuffed V8, and when it comes to a halt, it shuts off and burns nothing.

s are finally with us on a routine basis, brought to market by two of the most successful automobile manufacturers on the planet. They are being sold as everyday vehicles that, unlike their purely electric (and mercifully temporary) predecessors, do not need the tether of an electrical recharge to get the car going when it runs out of juice.

Instead, a , in its simplest form, works like this: When it is more efficient for the electric motor to be working, onboard computers switch it on.

The gasoline half of the equation works the same way.

On the road, the computer-controlled switch between gas and electricity is practically seamless. Perhaps the most eerie thing about a is when you brake to a stop -- in that endless traffic jam on the Bay Bridge, for example -- and the car goes into "sleeper" mode. It feels as if you have shut down the engine completely. But when you tap on the accelerator, the car "wakes up" and moves along.

"It's not like driving any other kind of car," says owner Brian Roberts, a 29-year-old project manager for a company that makes telephone switching devices. "But it's enough like driving a normal car so you get used to it pretty quickly."

Roberts, who lives in Pittsburg, is typical of the Bay Area buyer: curious about new technology and tired of ransoming his paycheck to the oil companies.

"I had a Toyota 4Runner, and I was only getting about 17 miles to the gallon," he said. "It was costing me a lot of money."

He checked out the , "but it had no back seat." The Insight, which gets an advertised 61 to 68 miles per gallon, is indeed a two-seater. It also comes only with a five-speed manual transmission, but Honda says an automatic is on the way.

Needing a family car, Roberts bought the , a four-door whose interior, Toyota says, is only slightly smaller than that of the bigger Camry sedan.

"What I found is that this car goes everywhere you need to go, and it comes pretty much loaded," Roberts said. Asked about the car's uniquely chunky design -- a cross between a Toyota Corolla and some granite boulders -- he said, "I haven't had any negative remarks. It looks different enough that people are interested."

They're also interested because there just are not very many of these cars rolling around the country.

s represent a small fraction of 1 percent of Toyota and Honda's total output. Toyota sold 422,961 copies of its best-selling model, the Camry, in the United States last year. Since the Prius was introduced in July, the company has sold slightly more than 8,000.

Honda, whose top seller, the Accord, accounted for 404,515 U.S. sales last year, has sold fewer than 4,000 Insights since the car's introduction four months ago.

One reason for these low numbers is that, according to industry sources, Toyota and Honda are losing as much as $10,000 on each $20,000 they sell in the United States because the new technology, still being made in small batches, is far more expensive than it would be if it were in mass production. In fact, Honda says the Insight is "an investment in our future." The future, in the form of next year, according to Honda spokesman Art Garner, will bring a power train in Honda's popular Civic line.

"When you tend to integrate ( technology) into mass-market vehicles like the Civic," Garner said, "it won't be long before we'll turn a profit on the s."

Outside the auto industry, environmental and consumer advocates alike have little but praise for the hybrids. But they caution that despite this quantum leap from a century-old way of doing things (the internal combustion engine as the sole way of powering a car), the hybrid may well be only temporary, until something better comes along.

"We tested both cars," said David Champion, director of automobile testing for the magazine Consumer Reports. "We had both cars for some time, and we haven't seen any problems in them. They seem to be fairly reliable, and they come from Honda and Toyota, who make reliable cars anyway."

Last year, the Sierra Club, normally no fan of the auto industry, gave Honda the club's "Award for Excellence in Environmental Engineering," the first product award in the organization's 108-year history. A few months after honoring Honda for its Insight, the club gave the same award to Toyota for its .

But Champion, like others, says that "over the long term, we see the vehicles as a stopgap. They're relatively heavy for what they are, and they're carrying around two engines and two fuel sources -- a battery pack and the electric motor, and the engine and its tank of gasoline."

The other problem is that cars powered by plain old diesel or gasoline engines have become so efficient that they can challenge s in the annual mileage sweepstakes held by the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency.

Volkswagen's diesel-powered Jetta, Beetle and Golf cars get up to 49 miles per gallon, and various gasoline-powered models made by Honda, Toyota, Suzuki, Mitsubishi and Chevrolet get up to 41 miles per gallon.

Many experts say fuel cells are the wave of the future. Using any kind of readily available fuel -- such as natural gas, methanol, gasoline or ethanol -- the fuel cell, like a battery, creates electricity using an electrochemical process that extracts hydrogen from the incoming fuel.

But mass-produced fuel cell vehicles are probably five to 10 years away, and for now the choice is what we've been using for the past 100 years or hybrids.

And if you want to be probably the only one on your block with something different, then the names are either Prius or Insight.

"I like it," Roberts says, "because it's unique."

Taken from San Francisco Chronicle

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Wednesday, November 01, 2006

Hybrids: Save gas, lose money

Consumer Reports says will lose value faster than other cars. Are they right?

By Peter Valdes-Dapena, CNNMoney staff writer

NEW YORK ( - Buying a will save you money on gas...but you might still come out behind.

One of two main reasons, according to a recent analysis by Consumer Reports, is an additional cost that has typically been treated as an unknown: depreciation. Another factor, the report found, is purchase price -- s simply have higher sticker prices than their non- counterparts, and gas savings don't do nearly enough to close the gap.

According to Consumer Reports' analysis of six gasoline/electric vehicles, they will lose 2 percent to 3 percent more in value over five years of ownership than otherwise identical non-s.

With the purchase price difference, depreciation and other costs like financing and insurance factored in, only the and Honda would save owners any money -- $406 and $317, respectively, over 5 years. That final figure includes the impact of a federal tax incentives for s. Without those incentives, buyers face a net cost of ownership of $2,700 more than Corolla buyers.

Other hs would cost owners thousands more than non-s over five years of ownership, even after federal tax credits.

For example, a Toyota costs $7,185 more to purchase than the non- version. That results in $558 more in sales tax and $2,653 more in financing costs. It also will cost $358 more to insure for five years and $12 more in repair and maintenance costs. In addition, the will also lose 3.9 percent more in value than the non-.

The will save you about $1,392 in gasoline over that time. So, even with a $2,200 federal tax credit in your bank account, the will ultimately cost you $5,508 more after five years than a similarly-equipped non- Highlander.

Figures originally published in Consumer Reports magazine on March 1 showed the cost gap being much larger and none of the vehicles saving owners any money. A correction posted to the magazine's Website Wednesday morning adjusted for a miscalculation in the rate of depreciation. The corrected figures narrow the gap, but all the vehices still depreciate at a faster rate than non-s, according to the magazine.

Depreciation debate

Depreciation is a major factor in Consumer Reports' analysis. But, experts say, it's difficult to accurately predict depreciation since few mainstream-targeted hybrid vehicles have entered the used car market.

supporter and owner James Bell, publisher of the automotive guide IntelliChoice, recently sold his two-year-old for just $4,000 less than he originally paid for it -- a remarkably low rate of depreciation

Even Bell acknowledges, however, his experience isn't a perfect indicator. Unlike most s, the is a uniquely designed vehicle that exists only as a . There are still waiting lists for new es at dealerships, so some impatient buyers will look for used ones instead.

And even for the Prius, some experts are saying that, because of ' technical complexity and additional costs, used car buyers will become wary of them in years to come.

Still, Bell thinks will hold their value at least as well as, if not better than, regular, non- vehicles. "We don't see any reason at this point to think that a is going to track along as an outstanding value and then suddenly crash," he said. In spite of increased production, systems will likely remain rare enough to command a premium among used car buyers, Bell said.

Nonetheless, there may be more effective ways to save on gas than buying a . Buying a smaller car, for example, or just getting a smaller engine. "s are kind of a luxury item," points out Jeff Bliskell, who wrote the feature for Consumer Reports.

Some luxury items that provide a tangible benefit, like heated seats, generally add to a vehicle's resale value. Whether a powertrain provides a real benefit, and will add to the car's value, will depend on a potential buyer's feelings about the social and environmental impact of fuel consumption.

Raj Sunderam, president of Automotive Lease Guide, a company that predicts residual values of cars for the purpose of calculating lease terms, also sees possibly losing value faster than non-s.

"We would agree with Consumer Reports that this is an area of caution," he said.]

But among the unknowns, Sunderam said, is long-term durability. "There's no track record of how they hold up after 80,000 or 100,000 miles," said Sunderam.

As the number of s available increases, that could also drive used prices lower. But it could also increase familiarity with the systems and ease potential used car buyers concerns about getting the car serviced, said Sunderam.

Still, said Sunderam, given the issues surrounding s, the prudent course is to assume they will lose value faster than non-. It will be up to future used car buyers to prove that assumption wrong.

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Tuesday, October 10, 2006

Gas-guzzlers and variable engine displacement

by Zatni Arbi

This year we saw a new era emerge in the automotive industry. We began the year with engines getting larger and larger.

People flocked to dealers to check out the latest SUVs. Suddenly, we had a worldwide oil crisis and the price of gasoline skyrocketed. Right away, the sales of gas-guzzling cars, trucks and SUVs plummeted, even in the U.S.

So car buyers now look for smaller cars or family sedans that do not compromise too much on interior space and utility. They were so pampered with the spaciousness of full-sized SUVs, but now fuel economy reigns supreme.

Here in Indonesia we used to think that diesel engines were cheaper to operate. As the government hiked the price of diesel fuel (known as "solar" locally) to Rp 4,300 per liter, the price difference was no longer significant.

If you included cleanliness, noise and, most of all, the faster depreciation of diesel-engine cars, it would no longer be attractive to have one. Its fuel consumption, however, still beats the average miles per gallon (mpg) of a gasoline-powered car, though.

, which automatically shut down their internal combustion engine and use an electric engine when traveling at a low speed, when coasting or when idle, were still a premium in 2005.

Ford's Escape, the first , was joined by others including the Lexus RX400h and the . In the compact segment, Toyota and Honda have been selling the hybrid , and Civic in the U.S. for a couple of years. Most car buyers are still waiting for the time when the price differential between the and non-hybrid versions drops substantially.

Whether can be used in Jakarta remains to be seen, as the water level on the road rises so quickly during a short downpour. Remember, even the energy from the brakes is transformed into electrical current that will recharge the battery.

By the way, has also been implemented in a RST-V (Reconnaissance, Surveillance and Targeting Vehicle), the battleground SUV that inspired the Hummer. It combines a diesel engine and one electric motor on each wheel to push it to more than 100 kilometers per hour (kph), and during a surveillance mission it can travel silently into enemy territory.

Blurring of distinctions

One clear trend in 2005 was the expanding range of car designs, which makes it more difficult for us to continue using the conventional categories. If you see a new model on the street, is it a subcompact, a compact, a full-size, an estate, a van, an MPV, an SUV, a crossover, a truck or just a sports car?

It's not easy to decide.

Today, as car buyers begin to abandon the large SUVs, they are setting their eyes on the smaller wagons with a high roof.

Consumer Reports calls them "microvans" or tall wagons". They have a high seating position, can accommodate up to six people and are equipped with fuel-efficient engines.

They are not a sports car that can take you off from 0 to 100 kph in under 10 seconds, but they can take you to the supermarket in comfort. One example is the Chrysler PT Cruiser, which has been around for some time and may soon see the streets of Jakarta.

Talking about the PT Cruiser, car buyers in the U.S. will certainly be reminded of Chevy's HHR. The van, which has been designed with a retro look and reminiscent of those fabulous Chevrolet trucks of the late 1940s and early 1950s, has been accused of being a copycat of the PT Cruiser. (Take a look at the accompanying picture.)

By the way, the HHR stands for Heritage High Roof. Quite a show of the need for more creativity, but you may also know that Chevy launched a retro-looking truck/roadster/sports car under the name SSR in 2003.

More carmakers are coming up with seven-seater, family-car models. While this configuration has been quite common in Asia for some time, the European and American carmakers are just beginning to introduce theirs in more varieties. One of the latest arrivals is the new Mercedes Benz B-Class.

It can take a family of three generations on an outing and spoil them with a lot of the creature comforts. From the U.S., there are the Ford Freestyle and Jeep Commander. The latter is an off-roader rather than a family hauler, though.

There is also a trend of replacing the metal roofs with hardened glass. Here, in Indonesia we first saw the panoramic roof in a Peugeot 307 SW a couple of years ago, but now they are common in many models-including the Land Rover LS3. The new midsize SUV -- also a seven seater -- has three separate sunroofs, one for each row of seats.

If the sun becomes too hot, you can cover your head with its built-in drape. The new Jeep Commander has one sunroof for the front row and a pair for the second row seats. And, of course, Maybach has the most versatile glass roof panel.

What about the tranny?

A continuously variable transmission (CVT) is what Ford used in its 2005 Escape Hybrid. It was also used in the relatively new Ford Freestyle SUV/car crossover. Other carmakers actually started using the CVT on their models much earlier, and we can expect this type of transmission to become more common in new cars and SUVs as it generally increases fuel economy.

VW, however, has developed its own solution for reducing fuel consumption. Currently implemented in the Audi 3, VW's DSG six-speed gearbox is actually a dual-clutch transmission. It is said that this is more effective than the CVT, the manual transmission and, certainly, the conventional torque converter automatic transmission.

Drive-by-wire is also being adopted in a growing number of cars. The mechanical link between the steering wheel and the front wheel is based on electrical current, and speed variable means that the faster you go the heavier the steering wheel will be. The result is a lighter vehicle, and it translates into a better fuel consumption.

Following the trend in the last two decades or so, car engines have become much more reliable. Some engine makers claim that their products are maintenance-free: Even the spark plugs can stay in for over 20,000 km.

However, no matter how good an engine is, it will not remain trouble-free for long if we feed it with the low quality, kerosene-mixed gasoline that some of our unscrupulous Pertamina gas station operators pump into our tanks.

On the horizon

In the not-so-far future, more cars will have many more active accident avoidance systems. General Motors' Opel Vectra, for example, will have some kind of automatic pilot. Provided the markings on the pavement are clear, the car will be able to navigate through a turn at speeds up to 90 kph.

Called the Traffic Assist, the system relies on laser sensors to keep you a safe distance from the vehicle in front. Mind you, however, this car will not work in Jakarta, where drivers seem adamantly opposed to even observing the lane markers.

Looking forward, more and more vehicles will leave dealers' lots with some kind of navigation system. I also believe that, as the ceiling-attached DVD screen and the headrests on the rearmost seats block the rear view mirror's line of sight, more cars and vans should be equipped with rear-facing cameras so that the driver will always be aware if a driver fro hell in a Kopaja bus is just one inch behind him.

Night vision will also become more commonplace to complement increasingly effective headlights. What I think should also be implemented in new cars is a sensor that detects the driver's physical condition. The sensor should emit an alert or disable the car altogether if the driver is drunk or sleepy.

A year ago, we talked about the ability of the engine to shut down some of its cylinders to save fuel. General Motors has also implemented a similar system in its 3.9-liter, V6 engine used in its Impala. I believe that, in the future, this variable engine displacement method will be used in more engines to achieve better fuel economy.

At any rate, cars will become more fuel-efficient, safer and more comfortable. They will come in a wider variety of shapes and sizes.

The problem is, there will be just too many of them around.

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Sunday, October 08, 2006

Study: Hybrid cars will pay for themselves over time

With higher gas prices and tax incentives, some s make economic sense, says.

DETROIT (Reuters) -- Some s will make up for their premium cost because of higher gas prices and tax credits from the U.S. government on the more fuel efficient vehicles, a study released Tuesday shows.

s and trucks, which get improved mileage in city driving by running on a combination of gas and electric power, cost between $1,200 and $7,000 more than traditional versions of the same vehicles, according to auto Web site is a partner providing data and content for's automotive Websites.

But a fuel economy study by showed that the scales were starting to tip in favor of hybrids.

"High gas prices and generous tax credits now offset the high sales prices of some s, assuming owners keep their hybrids for a few years," said Alex Rosten, an analyst with

The shift is significant because analysts have said that higher sticker prices were constraining hybrid sales.

s currently account for 1 percent of new car sales in the United States. But Japan's Toyota Motor Corp., the hybrid market leader, sees its annual sales topping 1 million units soon after 2010.

The consumer-focused automotive Web site said that, assuming vehicles were driven 15,000 miles per year and gas was priced at $3 per gallon, owners of the and Ford Motor Co.'s would break even within three years.

Buyers of the Saturn Vue Green Line from General Motors Corp., the Toyota Camry and the from Honda Motor Co. would break-even within six years, said.

But federal tax credits for buyers are being phased out on the most popular models.

Under a provision of the tax code, buyers of a after Sept. 30 will only qualify for half of the tax credit for which they would have previously qualified.

Tax incentives will also be cut on other s after auto makers sell 60,000 of the vehicles -- a sales threshold Toyota has reached.

The tax credit on Toyota and s is scheduled to drop to 25 percent in April 2007 and then be eliminated in October 2007.

In another study released Tuesday, auto industry tracking firm CSM Worldwide cited higher gas prices as one factor driving a shift toward more efficient six-speed transmissions.

CSM forecast that automatic six-speed transmissions would account for 60 percent of the U.S. car and truck market by 2012, up from less than 5 percent today.

GM has already announced plans to shift to a new family of six-speed transmissions for upcoming models.

CSM said three-quarters of the new cars from GM, the world's No. 1 automaker, would feature the six-speed transmission by 2012.

Please check Hybrids: seven worries, seven answers.

Including: What about battery replacement? What about maintenance?


Read More..

Saturday, August 26, 2006

Hybrids: Seven worries, seven answers

Sometimes buyers avoid for the wrong reasons. But, for some buyers, their worries are well founded.

By Peter Valdes-Dapena, staff writer

NEW YORK ( - When they're thinking about buying a , people sometimes worry about stuff that's just silly. Sometimes, though, they're absolutely right to be concerned.

In a survey done in cooperation with Harris Interactive, Kelley Blue Book's Web site,, asked car shoppers who were considering a what worried them about the vehicles.

We've evaluated the top seven concerns -- for all of them, at least two-thirds of respondents were "somewhat worried."

1. Worry: have complicated technology that is difficult or expensive to fix
To be fair, every car today has complicated technology that's difficult to fix. The old days of listening for a funny noise then taking wrench to the problem are long gone. Today's cars are packed with complicated electronics and computer chips.

Still, working on a will require some special training that your corner mechanic probably won't have. For the time being, you'll be taking it to the dealership for any needed repairs. And even the dealership may only have one or two mechanics trained on .

As far as expense goes, the -specific components of most have extremely long warrantees, so cost shouldn't be an issue.

Simple maintenance, like changing the oil or brake pads or rotating tires, can be done by your neighborhood mechanic, pointed out Tony Mossa, a spokesman for the Institute for Automotive Service Excellence, a group that certifies professional mechanics. As far as those sorts of things go, a presents no special challenges. Just make sure to keep careful records for warranty purposes.

Conclusion: It's a slight concern for now.

2. Worry: have limited battery pack life

Unlike cell phone or laptop batteries, batteries go through their entire functional lives without ever being fully charged or discharged. run on a regular gasoline-powered engine assisted by an electric motor. The electric motor's battery is charged by the gas engine during braking and idling.

So, batteries are designed to move energy in and out quickly and efficiently, said Tom Watson, Hybrid Propulsion Systems Manager for Ford Motor Co.

Both Toyota and Ford claim to have s in fleet use that have lasted well over 100,000 miles -- Toyota claims a few vehicles with over 200,000 miles.

Besides, typically there are extremely long warranties on components, including batteries. Toyota and guarantees all -specific components on their vehicles for 10 years or 100,000 miles. Ford guarantees them for 8 years or 100,000 miles and Honda for 8 years or 80,000 miles.

Conclusion: Not a major concern.

3. Worry: have technical problems like stalling and sputtering

This concern stems from a Toyota Prius recall last year. Priuses' gasoline engines would sometimes shut off during highway driving. Fortunately, the cars still had electrical power sufficient to drive a few miles while maintaining power for steering and braking systems.

The problem was a software glitch. All turn off their gasoline engines under some circumstances, such as when the vehicle is momentarily stopped at an intersection. The Prius was shutting off its engine at the wrong time.

Owners of affected vehicles were instructed to take their cars to the dealership where new software was installed that fixed the problem. All Priuses made since have the new software.

Conclusion: Not a real concern. Non- get recalled sometimes, too.

4. Worry: do not pay for themselves to justify their premium cost

According to most analyses, including a recent one by Consumer Reports, it would be difficult to justify purchasing a for economic reasons alone.

Even if gasoline costs continue to rise, according to Consumer Reports analysis, only the Honda Civic Hybrid and Toyota Prius could be said to save money over a five year ownership period once all costs are factored in. And even in those cases, the savings involved are $80 a year or less. You could save more by simply accelerating and braking more gently in your current vehicle.

The two biggest reasons that don't save their owners money are the higher initial cost and fast depreciation. New federal tax incentives help, but not enough.

Conclusion: A legitimate concern. Don't buy a just to save gas money.

5. Worry: do not offer the driving performance needed

It depends on which you're talking about and what your driving performance "need" is.

Hybrid powertrains are more fuel-efficient than non- ones. That means they can get more power out of the same amount of fuel. So a car can use a smaller gasoline engine while offering the same performance as a car with a larger engine.

It also means the vehicle can use the same sized engine more efficiently while also gaining a little extra power and quickness, as with Honda Accord Hybrid or Toyota Highlander Hybrid. When tested by, the difference in power between the regular V-6-powered Highlander and the Highlander Hybrid was quite noticeable. The Highlander Hybrid offered more responsive acceleration.

On the other hand, vehicles like the Toyota Highlander Hybrid don't save as much fuel as they could if they were equipped with smaller gasoline engines. Vehicles that do have smaller engines, like the Ford Escape Hybrid and Honda Civic Hybrid, still offer power that's more than adequate for daily use, including merging and passing. You won't blow anyone's doors off, but you also won't waste quite as much of your life pumping gas.

Conclusion: You have to choose your priorities.

6. Worry: will not hold resale value

Don't be fooled by stories about used Toyota Priuses selling for near-new prices. The Prius is a unique, -only vehicle with an eye-catching design. It's produced and sold in low volumes. In terms of holding its value as a used car, the Prius has more in common with the Mini Cooper, another resale value champ, than a Ford Escape Hybrid SUV.

Like the Escape, most are versions of ordinary, non- with little to visually distinguish them.

Conclusion: A genuine cause for concern.

7. Worry: do not get the level of mileage promised

If, by "promised," you mean "EPA estimated," they certainly don't. And neither will anything else. The problem with hybrids, though, is that even though all vehicles might get about 15 percent fewer miles per gallon than the government says -- that's one common estimate -- 15 percent of a big number is a far larger miss than 15 percent of a small number.

At any rate, if you're calculating how much you'll save on gas by looking at EPA estimates, you're probably overestimating by a wide margin.

Conclusion: Assume that it won't. Whether that's a concern is up to you.

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Friday, July 28, 2006

Hybrid Transit Buses

Taken from Hybridcenter

transit buses are starting to catch on with transit agencies around the country. But what’s the real story with these buses? Are they really cleaner and more fuel efficient than their conventional diesel counterparts?

Under the Hood & Around the Nation

technology is similar to that used in and trucks, with options for both parallel and series drive train designs. These buses employ similar technology including regenerative braking, electric motors, and battery storage. One main difference is that most es are coupling diesel-fueled engines with electric motors instead of the typical gasoline-electric configurations available in light duty vehicles. Maximizing the benefits from these buses requires optimizing the system for the transit bus routes, which might be affected by the terrain the bus travels or whether the bus frequently travels at freeway speeds or stays on city streets.

The majority of hybrid transit buses are currently being manufactured by three companies; General Motors(GM) Allison transmission, British Aerospace Engineering Systems, and ISE corporation. GM is planning to use the same technology from their to make their first real hybrid, a pickup to be offered in 2007. Hopefully the ability to share technology across vehicle types will allow them to keep costs down and compete with Toyota (though it is not clear that GM is so confident). Transit agencies in New York City, Seattle, San Francisco, and other cities around the country are investing in diesel buses, which promise to be more fuel efficient and lower emitting than conventional diesel buses.


As with other hybrid technology used in cars and trucks, there is a perception that hybrid buses not only save fuel, but inherently are cleaner than their non- counter parts. As we have previously noted on HybridBlog, s can have lower emissions, but they don’t automatically come that way.

The same goes for hybrid transit buses. A recent study by the University of Connecticut measured the particulate emissions from two transit buses and two conventional diesel buses in over-the-road tests. The researchers found no decrease in particulate emissions from the hybrid buses compared with the conventional diesel buses. Of course, this would be much less of an issue if the buses were equipped with diesel particulate filters that can reduce particulate emissions by more than 85 percent. Diesel particulate filter technology can be employed on both conventional and hybrid diesel buses.

Studies have shown lower emissions of nitrogen oxide (NOx) and other smog-forming emissions from hybrid buses than conventional diesel buses in full chassis dynamometer testing. However, the current Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) emission certification method is based on bench testing the diesel-fueled engine only and does not account for the bus configuration and the full benefits of the drive system. As an interim solution, California is crediting hybrid diesel buses with a 25 percent NOx emission reduction over the engine certification values. Until a proper certification method is established, emission comparisons of hybrid buses will continue to be difficult.

Fuel Economy: Potential Promise, but Questions Still Remain

The fuel economy of hybrid transit buses is all over the map, but all are improvements over conventional technology. There are reports from transit agencies of fuel economy improvements of 10 percent all the way up to 50 percent, depending on variables such as series or parallel design, system optimizations, and the type of bus route. Some over-the-road tests are being carried out by the National Renewable Energy Laboratory (NREL), but final results have not yet been released. However, preliminary results are promising with fuel economy tests showing a 25 percent to 50 percent increase for the es being evaluated, depending in part on the conventional diesel used in the comparison. (See NREL’s website for further info). The Connecticut Department of Transportation is also performing in-use testing that shows es netting a 35 percent fuel economy improvement over their fleet average, but only 10 percent greater than a comparable conventional diesel bus. More real-world testing and data collection, along with improvements to the hybrid systems themselves, should result in better estimates of fuel economy improvements of the different types of hybrid buses.

One interesting development in the hybrid bus world is the introduction of gasoline es. Diesels have typically been the power plant of choice for urban buses because of the extra torque diesel engines offer to haul a busload of people. Hybrid technology is enabling gasoline buses to compete in the same market because of the boost in torque the electric motor can give and the increased fuel efficiency that hybrid drive technology offers. The gasoline hybrids offered by ISE Corporation are certified to lower emission standards for NOx and particulate matter than their hybrid diesel and even natural gas counterparts.

Cost and Maintenance

How much do es cost? Hybrid buses can cost up to $500,000, a significant increase over a standard diesel transit bus, the cost of which is closer to $300,000. Natural gas buses, a lower-emission alternative to conventional diesel transit buses, are generally $20,000 to $50,000 more than a diesel bus. Natural gas buses will likely continue to be able to meet lower NOx emission standards than even diesel es until at least 2010 when stronger diesel emission standards go into effect.

One advantage of diesel hybrids over natural gas buses is the relative ease for transit agencies currently using diesel buses to incorporate diesel hybrids into their fleet. Adopting natural gas technology requires installation of natural gas fueling and maintenance infrastructure that is not required for diesel hybrids (though diesel hybrids may require additional training and equipment for maintenance). For transit agencies looking only to purchase a few buses, s may make sense. However, for transit agencies looking to purchase a large number of buses, a closer look at the full life-cycle cost and emission benefits of hybrids versus natural gas buses is required to make sure they are not paying more money for fewer emission benefits.

A Promising, but Cloudy Future

As with hybrid technology in cars and trucks, there is potential for significant fuel economy improvements and emission reductions from transit buses. So far, the results look promising. We’ll just have to wait and see how far manufacturers can go to improve emissions and fuel economy of transit buses, while lowering the overall cost of the buses.

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Saturday, July 01, 2006

Eco-friendly hybrid car unveiled

A new environmentally friendly hybrid car has been launched, although its manufacturer admits half of UK drivers know little about this type of vehicle.

The Honda car has a petrol engine supplemented by an electric motor which takes over when the car is idling.

(Picture right: Hybrid cars have a combined petrol and electric engine)

BBC Transport Correspondent Tom Symonds said sales of such cars were growing.

Of the drivers who said they knew about hybrids, more than 40% did not know that it was a vehicle which operated using a combination of petrol and electric power.

The findings were based on the responses of British drivers who were questioned by market research company TNS on behalf of Honda in January.

Hybrid cars are more environmentally friendly than standard vehicles because the integrated electric motor aids the engine by giving it a boost during acceleration in order to improve fuel economy.

It also runs the car at idle in order to minimise emissions.

In addition to this, the battery that powers the car's electric motor charges itself up with e energy recovered during deceleration.

'Fuel economy'

Honda is just one of a number of automobile firms which are working on green technology.

Toyota's top-end subsidiary Lexus was the first company to unveil a luxury saloon equipped with a hybrid petrol-electric engine.

And Toyota hopes to see worldwide Prius sales of one million a year by 2010.

Meanwhile a Ford Focus car is available which runs on bioethanol.

Bioethanol made from grain produces 65% fewer greenhouse gases than petrol, according to the UK government agency Central Science Laboratory.

Commenting on its new car, Honda said: "The result is a car that behaves like a petrol-engined car in terms of performance, emits less CO2 than an equivalent diesel and delivers mind-boggling fuel economy."

The company said its scientists and engineers were attempting to develop a car that runs on hydrogen and does not emit nitrogen oxides or carbon dioxide.

Car tax

"Car manufacturers are worried that lack of awareness is putting car buyers off hybrids, because they're seen as difficult to fill up, drive and maintain - and expensive to buy," said the BBC's Tom Symonds.

He went on: "It is hoped cuts to car tax announced by the chancellor last week will help, though a system of grants to encourage more people to buy hybrid vehicles has been delayed."

Honda's research revealed that 70% believed that the government should be responsible for encouraging better take up of environmentally friendly vehicles.

And 35% of those questioned said the responsibility lay with car manufacturers.
Less than a fifth - 17% - felt it was the driver's responsibility to reduce the environmental impact of their vehicle.

Honda said it had sold more than 130,000 hybrid vehicles worldwide, including more than 2,000 in Europe.

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Wednesday, April 05, 2006

How hybrid power surprised the car industry

By Jorn Madslien BBC News business reporter

Toyota's petrol and electric hybrid model, the Prius, is more than just a car - it is a phenomenon.

And not only because it has just been voted car of the year 2005 in Europe, on top of a similar award in the USA early this year.

The car's surprise success has sparked a revolution in the car industry that is about to change forever the way the world's automotive sector operates.

"In 20 or 40 years" all the automotive group's cars will be hybrids, the man in charge of Toyota's research and development, design and product development, Kazuo Okatmoto, told the car industry magazine Automotive News Europe.

(Picture Right: How Does It Works? A hybrid car is powered by an electric motor. The motor's battery is recharged by an electric generator which is powered by a petrol engine. Since the petrol engine runs at an optimal speed, it consumes fuel in a more efficient way than traditional petrol engines. Additional power to the battery comes from kinetic energy from the wheels when the car is slowing down. The petrol engine provides extra power for the car when required)

"And it won't just be Toyota. All makers will have hybrids," he said.

Prius stars

But these are early days.

With just 8,500 sold in Europe this year, the Prius's lofty reputation has not come about as a result of it being a best-selling model.

Rather, it has risen to the pinnacle largely thanks to endorsements from the Hollywood glitterati and their penchant for political correctness.
High profile Prius drivers such as Leonardo di Caprio, Billy Crystal, Harrison Ford and Susan Sarandon have done a world of good for hybrid cars; these days everyone who is anyone want one.

(Picture Right: DiCaprio's custom did wonders for the Prius's image)

And yet, total global Prius sales reached just 43,000 last year.

Made in Hollywood

Hollywood's enormous impact on the Prius's fortunes surprised even Toyota, which has simply been unable to deliver in sufficient numbers.

So in a rearguard action, it dramatically boosted its capacity to support the sale of 130,000 Prius next year, just over a tenth of them in Europe.

Further production facilities are being prepared outside Japan, including in China where Prius production will start next year.

And the company might even start producing the Prius in California, where Hummer-driving Governor Arnold Schwarzenegger has been prompted to swear his allegiance.

(Picturte Right: "We only have one planet," says Kevin Bacon)

Last Friday, Mr Schwarzenegger held talks with Toyota President Fujio Cho about producing Prius at the car maker's Fremont plant.

Late entrants

But if the Prius' success caught Toyota unawares, the situation was much worse for its competitors, some which have no hybrid offering at all.

Several are now desperately scrambling to catch up, with Ford and Nissan both having entered into licensing agreements that allow them to use Toyota's hybrid technology.

Ford's Escape Hybrid Sports Utility Vehicle hit the street earlier this year, complete with movie stars uttering statements to enhance both their own and the car's images:

"We only have one planet," declared actor Kevin Bacon after having driven the car last April. "We have to protect this one."

(Picture Right: Lexus unveiled its hybrid SUV earlier in year 2004)

GM, which initially had little faith in the hybrid solution, arrived late at the party, though. In Europe, meanwhile, the French car makers' stop-and-go technology has some way to catch up with Toyota.

Toyota's own efforts are also impressive: earlier this year, the car maker's luxury subsidiary Lexus unveiled its RX400h SUV and soon all Toyotas will come with hybrid engine options.

The trend is clear: the supply of hybrid cars is set to rise very fast indeed.

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Tuesday, March 07, 2006

The gas-guzzlers versus the greens

BY Bill Garrett (BBC Money Programme)

Whether you see them as gas guzzling monsters of the road or as versatile necessities of modern life, four-wheel drives have become the most controversial cars on the road, pitting environmental campaigners against car lovers and motor manufacturers.

Now the industry is fighting back by using new technology it says will improve the green credentials of their 4x4s.

(Picture Right: Many celebrities like 4x4s - especially hybrid ones)

Cars have always attracted their share of criticism from green campaigners, but expensive four- wheel drives, with their heavy fuel consumption and high carbon dioxide emissions, have become a particular target for activists in recent months. Now a group called The Alliance Against Urban 4x4s has started a campaign against their use in Britain's cities.

On a cold early morning in January this year, members of the group took to the streets of North London to leaflet parents dropping off their children on the school run.

Mums and dads driving their off-road vehicles through the narrow streets were presented with mock school reports giving bad marks for using vehicles the protestors claim are bad for the environment.

Sian Berry, one of the founders of the group, defends the tactics of the protestors. "We have been trying to point out to parents who are taking their children to school in 4x4s that they're polluting the air and they are basically making a very irresponsible choice".

Ups and downs

But the rise of the anti-4x4 protest groups spells bad news for the car industry.

These off-roaders - known as SUVs or Sport Utility Vehicles in the States - are amongst the few growth areas for the hard-pressed motor industry, and now virtually all manufacturers, from Ford to Honda, Porsche to Land Rover, include them in their model ranges.

Demand for SUVs has doubled in the UK in the last 10 years with 80,000 sold in 2004 alone, and that accounts for over 6% of all new cars sold here.

David Motton, editor of What Car?, argues that they appeal to people's desire to make their lives feel more exciting.

"Maybe you are just on the way to the supermarket, but you might feel that if the mood takes you, you could dash off to Snowdonia.

"It just gives you a sense that perhaps life might be a bit more adventurous than the humdrum life that most of us really lead."

So the big problem for the car industry is how to hold on to this profitable and glamorous sector of the market whilst appeasing the environmentalists.

Escape to victory

Ford think they might have the answer by incorporating what is known as hybrid engine technology into some of their SUVs.

Hybrid vehicles are powered by a combination of a petrol engine and an electric motor, and the effect of this dual power source is to reduce both fuel consumption and carbon emissions.

They have now launched the new Ford Escape Hybrid in the USA, the world's first commercially-available hybrid SUV.

Mary Ann Wright, head engineer for hybrid technology at Ford, believes the company is responding to the concerns of its customers.

"We love our big bodacious SUVs, but in recent years we are not feeling quite so good about driving them because of the environmental footprint that they leave. And we are looking to create a product that would appeal to the environmentally-conscious consumer and the [Ford] Escape was perfect".

But is this a genuine effort to improve the green credentials of the SUV, or simply an attempt to make it more marketable?

Last year, Lexus, the luxury offshoot of Toyota, unveiled the Lexus RX 400h hybrid off-roader at European motor shows. It will be the first hybrid 4x4 to reach the UK market later this spring.

At a cost of over £40,000 it will be considerably more expensive than its petrol-only counterpart, but Lexus is hoping that customers will be won over both by the idea of lower fuel consumption and the concept of guilt-free 4x4 motoring.

Model behaviour

John Wormald, co-author of "Time for a Model Change", an analysis of the worldwide motor industry, argues that the industry is trying hard to balance the needs of its customers against growing environmental concerns.

"It's a classic contradiction... between the interests of the individual and the interests of society or of the global community. SUV hybrids are a way of reconciling those two conflicting interests, a way of being able to keep a larger vehicle without its being quite so thirsty and polluting."

Whatever the environmental arguments, the 4x4 is undoubtedly here to stay - the motor industry has invested too much to let it become a passing fad.

Whether the anti-4x4 campaigners can ever be persuaded that greener SUVs represent a genuine concession to environmental concerns is more of an open question.

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