Hybrids are Making Headway
Each year, auto shows give us a glimpse of futuristic vehicles that feature the kind of environmental solutions automotive research laboratories are dreaming up to wean us off our dependence on oil and rid us of air pollution.
In the race to market, spurred on by government and political pressures, the leaders of the pack are Toyota and Honda. Both companies’ hybrid products have successfully surpassed the “plug-in” style, short-range electric vehicles of the past and developed a more widely accepted Hybrid Gasoline-Electric Vehicle (HEV).
With gas prices soaring and a war in the Middle East, the popularity of these vehicles is on the rise. Why so popular? Two reasons: Environmental friendliness and fuel efficiency. How do 50+ miles to the gallon and 90% fewer smog-forming emissions sound?
For Honda, it’s the Insight and the new Civic Hybrid; for Toyota, the Prius. And just for the record, Toyota has taken the lead in sales to date, but the Civic Hybrid has been applauded by the press for bringing a “consumer-friendly,” popular model type to market. This seems to be the preferred strategy, as Ford, GM and Lexus are each planning hybrid launches in popular models as the Escape, Saturn Vue, Sierra/Silverado Trucks and RX330 within the next few years.
What is a Hybrid?
Ultimately, hybrid vehicles are a compromise between pollution-creating gas engines and inconvenient, small-range electric engines. A small, efficient gas engine acts as a “generator” to continually recharge an electric motor battery as the car is operating. These two “engines” work together to reduce the amount of gasoline needed — thus improving mileage and reducing tailpipe emissions. And there are lots of other efficiencies built into these vehicles.
Engine Shut-off During Stops
Since the hybrid car has an electric engine, it does not need to rely on the gas engine all the time. For instance, when stopped at a red light, the engine shuts off to conserve energy. As soon as the accelerator is pressed, the gas engine resumes running.
Aerodynamic Shape Reduces Drag
These cars are designed with a distinctively low front end to cut through the wind with ease and all external objects like wheel housings and mirrors are reduced greatly for aerodynamic efficiency.
Low-Rolling Resistance Tires
Small tires are both stiffer and inflated to a higher pressure, resulting in half the drag of conventional tires.
The overall weight of these cars actually increase their mileage. Composite materials like carbon fiber or lightweight metals like aluminum and magnesium have been used to reduce weight. Even with these lighter materials, crumple zones, airbags and anti-lock brakes are standard on these vehicles and safety ratings are average to high.
A Popular Choice
The key motivation for sales growth of these vehicles in the past has been interest in the environment and a secondary attraction — especially from young people — is the desire to be on the razor’s edge of new technologies. Now, gas mileage is key in the growing interest in hybrids.
Future hybrid projections are ambitious. Cameron Diaz bragged about hers on The Tonight Show and Larry David tools around in his Honda Civic Hybrid on the HBO hit, Curb Your Enthusiasm. The academy awards featured many environmental activists being dropped off in their HEVs on the red carpet as well. But even with all the hoopla, the amount of press received does not necessarily translate to sales.
Perceived Cost is a Factor
Although this market is expected to grow, the cost of these vehicles continues to be an obstacle. Paying a premium of around $4,000 when comparing the Toyota Prius to the Corolla and the Honda Civic Hybrid to the Civic, the purchase can be perceived as a tough financial pill to swallow.
Other "down-sides" include reduced horsepower and battery maintenance costs, however the future hybrids are promising even lower emmissions and faster engines.
Other Environmentally-Friendly Vehicles
Competing technologies such as the newer diesels — big in Europe — and hydrogen fuel cells are claiming that their products will simply replace the hybrid technology by providing the kind of performance people desire with the environmental advantages of the hybrid. But because these technologies both require a source of fuel that is not easily accessible to the average American consumer, there is still some groundwork to be done.
In February 2003, a poll conducted by Auto Remarketing reported 78% of new car buyers would consider hybrids if given the federal tax break and named hybrids as the fifth most popular type of vehicle they’d like to purchase.
So whether hybrids are here to stay or simply a transitional environmental solution, you can choose to be a responsible global citizen right now and become the “greenest” person on your block.
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