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.

Read More..

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.

Read More..

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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