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by John Kinsfather

Although initially hybrids were thought of as somewhat of a novelty, they are now quickly moving into amore serious second phase of their existence.

It´s been “fueled” by gas prices that appear to be settling in at around $2 a gallon along with the realization that in the long term we may always be dependent on unstable foreign countries for a major portion of our fuel supply.

Isn´t it amazing what living with $2 plus for gasoline can do to the car market? Even though Hybrids have been kicking around the market for about the last 2 or 3 years (actually about 6 or 7 thanks to Toyota and Honda) all of sudden everyone wants to get on the bandwagon. Honda introduced the technology to the US market in 1999 with the Honda Insight, while Toyota has been working on Hybrid technology for over 10 years and now has over 370 patents incorporated in its newest Prius, which by the way was voted North American Car of the Year for 2004.

Hybrids basically draw power from two energy sources, a gasoline or diesel engine and an electric motor. The electric motor, very smoothly and efficiently handles the in-town driving, while the gasoline engine takes over out on the open road where it is more fuel efficient. The combined mileage can be quite impressive, reaching 40 to 60 mpg in every day driving conditions.

Although Toyota and Honda set the pace, the big three are rapidly playing catch up. Where has Detroit been all this time? Probably a head-in-the- sand state of denial as usual, but rising gas prices, have given them a bit of a wake up call.

Ford, first out of the box, will be introducing three models of hybrids in the next few years. The first, an Escape SUV model for 2005, claims 80% better fuel economy and 61% less emissions. GM ´s first offering will be in the way of their ever popular Silverado pick up which will be a semi, or as they call it a “mild hybrid” based on their traditional V-8 which actually shuts down when you stop and batteries take over. The mileage gain is only about 10% so it´s questionable whether this could e en be classed as a hybrid. Chrysler on the other hand is yet to be heard from, but as a stopgap will introduce the Liberty diesel (another technology that is making a rebound) which will get 27 mpg and reduce emissions by about 20%. In their attempt to play catch up Daimler Chrysler and GM will join forces to develop some true hybrid offerings.

In the interim Toyota has estimated sales for ´04 of more than 45,000 units of Prius, while going upscale with both a Toyota and Lexus SUV Hybrid this year. Following close behind will be Mitsubishi who has shown a high performance Hybrid with “470 hp” and Mercedes who will introduce for ´05 a hybrid version of its new Vision GST Sport Wagon with 314 hp while delivering a 20% increase in fuel economy. Honda, one of the leaders in hybrid technology, will be right up front with a new larger V 6 Accord model with 255 hp and Variable Cylinder Management (which drops one bank of cylinders at cruising speed to save fuel). Honda will have dealt with the two most common complaints on Hybrids, looks and power.

Hybrids may not have been on Detroit´s front burner, but it´s easy to see that the likes of Toyota and Honda are well on their way to cornering the market from all directions, having taken the technology seriously, and are well positioned to take full advantage of a booming Market. It will be interesting in the model years ahead to see where the hybrid craze will lead us. The next step hopefully will be to get the overall prices down where we can begin to take the total concept of hybrids seriously.

Reprinted with permission from the Sierra Mountain Times