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Hybrid cars

Is there an answer to the soaring prices and pollution in the near future?

From DIANA J. CHOYCE
 May 07 - 13, 2001

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 Northwest.

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 cold."

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."