Right now in the states, gas prices are rising up and up. In
large cities, prices will probably hit well over $2.00US per gallon by summer.
Large car owners are lamenting and grumbling, small car owners are grinning ear
to ear. But even small cars use up their share of gas and pollute the
environment. Is there an answer to the soaring prices and pollution in the near
future? Picture one car, two engines, and 68 miles per gallon. If you purchase a
Honda Insight or a Toyota Prius, that's exactly what you will get. And these are
the only two car lines of their kind to be sold in the United States. The Honda
is a two seater sports car, and the Toyota is a four door sedan. What makes them
so special? They have both a gas and electric engines. A computer determines
which is the most efficient mode at a given time. Sometimes it uses the gasoline
engine, sometimes the electric motor, and sometimes both. At a stop, the car
switches over to its "sleeper" mode, and goes silent. But the engine
revs up again as soon as you hit the accelerator.
In the past electric cars have been a total flop on the US
markets. But unlike the older electric only designs, these new cars don't need
to be recharged. The gas generator does the job when the batteries run low. How
will they fair in the market? Well for consumers who care about the environment
and high gas prices, their gas mileage is a big motivation. Toyota claims the
Prius gets 52 miles per gallon in cities and 45 on the highway because of the
way it conserves energy when at a halt. Consumer Reports magazine says it got 41
mpg when testing the car. The smaller Insight is advertised at 61 to 68 miles
per gallon, although Car and Driver reports that it got 47. Honda says it has
sold nearly 5,000 Insights in a little more than a year, with more than 400
moving in March, the highest total yet. But that's still the second-lowest
figure among Honda's 14 models available in the United States. By comparison,
the company's best-selling car, the Accord, moved almost 38,000 units in March.
Toyota spokesman Wade Hoyt says the carmaker has more orders for the Prius than
it can fill. The company is importing 1,000 a month from Japan and is selling
them all, with sales particularly high in Southern California and the Pacific
So how are hybrid cars to drive? "The people who buy the
Prius are very enthusiastic," says Wade Hoyt, a spokesman for Toyota.
"You don't have to make any sacrifices. It drives like a normal car."
Other reviews suggest hybrids may have a way to go before they capture the
imagination of drivers in the famously car-happy culture of the United States.
"They're not normal cars," says Frank Markus, the technical director
for Car and Driver magazine, who has road-tested both vehicles. "The fun of
driving them is watching the recovered-energy symbols pop up on the dash.
"The Insight feels and runs and looks and acts like a pretty standard
car," says Markus. "But the Prius is a different animal." When
Markus took the Prius out on the road, he said the "rock-hard tires,"
a key part of the car's fuel-efficiency system, prevented the Prius from
handling as well as other sedans. And Markus says the dual engine leads to
problems when you are driving the Prius in snow conditions, since it only uses
its electric engine to go in reverse. "You can't rock the car out of the
snow," he says. "You lose your momentum." And winter weather
highlights one more drawback of the electric engine: "Batteries hate
The Insight and Prius represent just the first attempts at
mass-production hybrid cars. Others are planned, including a hybrid Honda Civic,
the company's No. 2-selling car. "I don't think they will be
super-successful in the long run," says Frank Markus, the technical
director for Car and Driver magazine. "This thing [the Insight] is the
technology-teaser to get people interested, then they'll stick this engine in
the Civic." Other major automakers are expected to roll out hybrid versions
of their own best selling cars that are already in production. Ford and
DaimlerChrysler are planning hybrid versions of some of their SUVs, to be rolled
out from 2003 through 2005, while Chevrolet is planning to produce hybrid
versions of two full-size pickups, the Silverado and Sierra, in 2004. And Ford
announced last week it will open a new $650 million factory in Turkey, where up
to 150,000 hybrid vehicles will be manufactured per year. Still, some say that
hybrid cars are not likely to be a long-term solution for those seeking energy
efficiency. In the long run, fuel-cell cars, which generate electricity from
hydrogen cells, may be the auto industry's big step beyond internal combustion.
"We definitely see the Prius as a bridge to whatever the car of the future
may be," says Hoyt. "It may be a fuel-cell car, or a combination of
fuel-cell and hybrid."