Hybrids Shed Their Wimpy Ways

Along with fuel-sipping, the next generation features more power and will be found in all manner of vehicles, SUVs included

Maybe you're the gadget type who wants your new car outfitted with the latest technology, from GPS navigation systems to voice-activated radio controls. Or perhaps you're the performance buff, always opting for the biggest powerplant over the standard engine. Or maybe you're the fashionista who wants to drive what Hollywood drives. Or could be that you're just feeling a little guilty about that SUV hulking in your driveway after the neighbor's kids lectured you about the ozone layer and imported oil.

If you fit any of those descriptions -- that's right, any of them -- you might consider checking out a hybrid vehicle the next time you're in the market for a car. True, you won't find much choice at the moment. And if the image you get when you hear the words "hybrid car" is that of a small, premium-price econobox designed solely for the greatest possible fuel economy and lowest emissions, you're probably right.

That's about to change, however. Over the next several years, you'll be able to choose from a diverse assortment of hybrids -- vehicles powered by a conventional gasoline engine that works in tandem with a battery-powered electric motor. In the near future, hybrid powertrains will be able to propel everything from sedans to SUVs, and even full-size pickup trucks. Don't confuse them with electric cars that you have to plug into a wall socket to get enough juice for tomorrow's commute: The hybrid's gas engine keeps the batteries recharged.


  America's first hybrid, the Honda Insight, arrived at the end of 1999. A teardrop-shaped two-seater that looked like no other car on the road, it was, to put it mildly, impractical. Toyota's (TM ) first-generation Prius followed the next year. It was equally uncomely, but at least it could seat four adults.

Last year, Honda (HMC ) put a hybrid powertrain in one of its Civic sedans and charged $20,000 for it -- about $2,500 more than the previous high-end Civic, though buyers could get a federal tax deduction for $2,000. So far this year, the hybrid version has accounted for more than 7% of all Civics shipped -- and the Civic is the best-selling compact car in America.

Next on the market will be Toyota's all-new 2004 Prius, due in October. It has grown from a compact to a midsize whose interior space is about halfway between a Corolla's and a Camry's. It gets even better mileage than its predecessor: About 55 miles per gallon in combined city and highway driving.


  It comes fully loaded, and you can outfit it with options that are rare for cars in its $20,000 price range, such as a built-in Bluetooth radio receiver that lets you talk hands-free on your Bluetooth-equipped cell phone without having to take it out of your bag. It also has a smart key that lets you unlock the car and start the ignition without ever taking the key out of your pocket or purse.

With luxury amenities like those, it's a sure bet that some current high-profile Prius owners -- a list that includes Hollywood stars Cameron Diaz, Leonardo DiCaprio, and Harrison Ford -- will be lining up to trade theirs in for the new model. "The Prius is already chic," says Ron Cogan, editor of Green Car Journal. "The new one will be more so."

This time next year, if carmakers deliver on schedule, you'll begin seeing even bigger hybrids on the road. Ford (F ) is planning a hybrid version of its Escape SUV, which it hopes will get around 35 mpg in city driving, up from 19 mpg for today's models. And Toyota will offer its hybrid system in a luxury Lexus RX 330 SUV.


  Here's an interesting twist: Knowing that consumers are largely unwilling to pay extra for better fuel economy, Toyota will tweak the RX 330 for better performance as well. The hybrid SUV's V6 will sip fuel like a four-cylinder engine, but have the acceleration of a V8. "We're going to sell them the performance and give them the fuel economy," says David Hermance, executive engineer for environmental engineering at the Toyota Technical Center in Gardena, Calif.

If you're looking for a truck, both General Motors (GM ) and Chrysler (DCX ) have hybrids coming out next year, GM in its full-size Chevy Silverado and GMC Sierra pickups, and Chrysler in a diesel-engine Dodge Ram. These will be so-called "mild" hybrids: They'll have a smaller, less expensive electric motor, which will improve fuel economy by around 10%, vs. the roughly 40% or 50% gains of the "full" hybrids from Ford, Honda, and Toyota. Still, with these gas guzzlers, a 10% savings can deliver close to the same payoff at the pump as a more fuel-efficient compact does.

These vehicles will cost more, however. Chrysler says its hybrid Ram will sport a sticker about five grand higher than the gas-only version. The lure, besides modest savings on fuel, is that these behemoths will be rolling electric generators, with 110- or 120-volt outlets in the cabin and the pickup bed to provide electrical power at construction sites or campgrounds. The Dodge RAM will even have a 240-volt outlet, enough to run an electric oven or central air conditioning. Plug it into your house (with the help of an electrician, of course), and as long as you have gas in the tank, you'll never have to worry about blackouts again.


  You probably won't notice any difference in the way hybrids drive -- except for the occasional eerie silence when the gasoline engine shuts down to save fuel, at a stoplight, for instance. In the full hybrids, the electric motor works with the gasoline engine to get the car off the dime. In Toyota's case, you can accelerate from a stop using the electric motor alone, and the gasoline engine kicks in when it's needed, usually at about 10 mph.

Honda's approach is just the opposite: Its gasoline engine powers the car, supplemented by the electric motor for acceleration, passing, and climbing hills. In the GM and Chrysler systems, the electric motors don't power the vehicle at all. They take a load off the engine by running its electrical systems, such as the air conditioning. And because they can restart the gasoline engine quickly, it shuts off instead of idling at stoplights and when the truck is braking or coasting.

Because they have two motors rather than one, hybrids will always cost a bit more than a conventionally powered car. To recoup that premium in fuel savings alone, even with gas at $2 a gallon, will take five or six years or more. One tip: If you lease the car, rather than buy it, you can just about halve the extra cost, especially with high-resale-value cars such as Toyotas and Hondas.

And you'll be viewed as a friend of the earth in the process. For many drivers, that combination will be hard to beat.

By Larry Armstrong in Los Angeles

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