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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