By Carol Traeger
Life magazine was wrong. Back in the '70s, I read an article in that publication predicting that by the year 2000 we'd be driving pollution-free cars or riding quiet monorails to work. We'd all have shaved heads, wear unisex jumpsuits and eat pill-size food pellets for breakfast, lunch and dinner. Our cities would be clean, quiet and streamlined, unmarred by smokestacks, smelly buses and leaf blowers.
Well, progress is slow.
For myriad reasons, the cleanest cars of all, hydrogen-powered vehicles, are decades away from mass production. In the meantime, we've got the next best thing: gas-electric hybrids. Hybrid vehicles combine gas engines with electric motors to achieve high fuel economy and low hydrocarbon emissions.
Unlike electric cars, which have to be recharged and have a range of 70 to 150 miles, hybrids use regular unleaded gas and can go 500-700 miles on a single tank of fuel. Hybrids never have to be plugged in because their electric motors act as generators during braking and coasting downhill to recharge the batteries.
All hybrids are not alike, however. "Full hybrids," such as the Toyota Prius, switch between using the gas engine alone, the electric motor alone or a combination of both to drive the wheels. "Mild hybrids," like the Honda Insight and Civic Hybrid, always use the gas engine to drive the wheels; the electric motor kicks in to provide an extra boost during acceleration. The net result of either hybrid system is increased fuel economy (up to 60 mpg) and reduced emissions.
While other automakers have been dragging their feet, Toyota and Honda have been pioneering the hybrid revolution. In 1997, Toyota launched the world's first hybrid, the five-passenger Prius, and has sold 140,000 of them since. Toyota also sells hybrid versions of the Estima minivan and Crown sedan in Japan. In 1999, Honda became the first automaker to sell a hybrid in the United States, the two-seat Insight, and followed that up with the Civic Hybrid sedan last year.
Hybrid sales have been accelerating. Since 1999, Toyota and Honda together have sold 92,809 hybrids in this country. Of that number, nearly half (38,000) were sold in 2002. J.D. Power and Associates estimates the U.S. hybrid market will grow to 500,000 units by 2008, with new hybrid entries, including SUVs and pickups, announced by Toyota, General Motors, DaimlerChrysler and Ford.
There's probably a hybrid in your future. And why not? Hybrids cost about $3,000 more than their gas-only counterparts, but the Union of Concerned Scientists says you'll save at least $5,500 in fuel over the life of the vehicle. Plus, buying a new hybrid qualifies you for the federal government's $1,500-$2,000 "clean fuel vehicle" tax credit. Several states offer tax credits to hybrid-car buyers, and some states permit solo drivers of hybrid cars to use the commuter lanes during rush hour. (Just think. Even if your Toyota Prius doesn't have the horsepower of a Porsche 911, you can enjoy the thrill of passing a 911 on the expressway.)
When the 2004 Prius hits showrooms next month, we'll finally have a hybrid big enough to be a real family car. With 99 cubic feet of passenger space, the Prius moves up from the compact to the midsize category. Cargo volume has increased by 30 percent (expandable via fold-down rear seats), and average fuel efficiency has been improved to 55 mpg.
The Prius looks as slippery as something George Jetson would drive, and it is. With a 0.26 coefficient of drag, the Prius is one of the most aerodynamic production cars ever. The Prius' real advancement lies in its new high-voltage "Hybrid Synergy Drive," which combines a 1.5-liter four-cylinder engine (producing 78 horsepower and 85 pound-feet of torque) with a new 67-hp electric motor powered by 500 volts versus the previous 273.
The brawnier electric motor provides quicker acceleration and allows the Prius to spend more time running solely on electric power - as does its new air conditioner, which needs no aid from the gas engine. With its peppier powertrain, Prius can zip from zero to 60 mph in 10.5 seconds (two seconds faster than the old Prius, and about the same as a four-cylinder Camry).
Despite its increased size, power and fuel efficiency, the new Prius retains the original's $20,000 price. Toyota sold 20,000 Priuses last year and expects to sell 36,000 units annually of the new model.
Honda Civic Hybrid
It looks just like a regular Civic, drives just like a regular Civic, but it gets 40 percent better gas mileage - 50 mpg - than a regular Civic.
The Civic's regular appearance appeals to people who don't want to make a big deal about saving the planet. Like the Honda Insight, the Civic Hybrid is powered by Honda's Integrated Motor Assist (IMA) hybrid powertrain system. The IMA combines a 1.3-liter four-cylinder gas engine (86 hp) with a lightweight electric motor.
The first hybrid ever sold in the U.S., the Insight's wedge-shaped aluminum body and low side skirts make it look every bit the high-tech, 55-mpg machine it is. Powered by Honda's IMA hybrid system, the Insight is light, tossable and fun to drive, but it's also noisy and vulnerable to crosswinds. Its large battery pack puts the squeeze on cargo space, and its lack of a passenger airbag on/off switch makes it kid-unfriendly. Call it a great second or third car for the environmentally conscientious commuter.
Hybrids on the horizon
Honda is mum about its future hybrid plans, but Toyota president Fujio Cho recently announced that Toyota plans to double its hybrid-vehicle lineup by 2006. American automakers are following suit. Here's what's been announced so far:
Toyota will launch a "full hybrid" Lexus RX 330, to be called the RX 400H, in 2004, followed by "full hybrid" versions of the Sienna minivan and Highlander SUV in 2005. Toyota also is considering a hybrid Camry and a hybrid V8 powertrain for a future Lexus model.
Ford will introduce a "full hybrid" version of its Escape SUV next fall. Combining an electric motor with an 87-hp, four-cylinder gas engine, the Escape HEV is expected to get 35-40 mpg and perform as well as the 200-hp V6 version. A "full hybrid" Futura sedan also is in the works and will be introduced after the gasoline model debuts in 2006.
General Motors will offer "mild hybrid" versions of its 5.3-liter Chevy Silverado and GMC Sierra pickups to fleet customers in 2003 and retail customers in 2004.
GM also will offer a "mild hybrid" Chevy Equinox SUV in 2006, and a "mild hybrid" Chevy Malibu sedan in 2007.
The Chevy Tahoe and GMC Yukon large SUVs will be available in "mild hybrid" trim in 2007.
GM's biggest news is a "full hybrid" Saturn Vue, to debut in late 2005.
Offered in front-wheel drive, the Vue will get 40 mpg and meet SULEV emissions standards.
DaimlerChrysler will introduce a "mild hybrid" version of its full-size Ram pickup truck, the Dodge Ram Contractor Special, in 2004.
Nissan last year announced a "hybrid technology exchange agreement" with Toyota, which calls for Toyota to supply "state-of-the-art hybrid system components" to Nissan, and for both companies to exchange information and discuss joint development of hybrid components.