IMAGE: MARINER HYBRIDS
Dave Kaup  /  Getty Images
A line of new Mercury Mariner Hybrids await test drives Wednesday at Ford's assembly plant in Claycomo, Mo.
updated 11/17/2005 10:00:16 AM ET 2005-11-17T15:00:16

Ford Motor Co. is engineering a new push for gasoline-electric vehicles, showing off its second hybrid SUV and announcing that hybrids would for the first time be part of incentives that effectively cut prices by hundreds of dollars.

Ford said that Wednesday marked the start of "full-scale production" for the Mercury Mariner Hybrid at its suburban Kansas City assembly plant.

The company plans to build 4,000 Mariner Hybrids a year.

The Claycomo plant already builds the Ford Escape Hybrid, whose success led company officials to bump up by a year the release of the Mariner Hybrid.

Nancy Gioia, director of Ford's sustainable mobility technologies and hybrid vehicle programs, said Ford plans to roll out three more hybrid vehicles over the next three years and will produce 250,000 hybrid vehicles a year by 2010.

"As the second of our five announced hybrids, the hybrid Mariner represents the next stage in our commitment," Gioia said at a ceremony at the plant.

New price discount
The Mariner Hybrid, which uses a rechargeable electric motor for speeds under 25 mph, gets 33 miles per gallon in city driving and 29 miles per gallon on the highway. By contrast, the standard Mariner gets 22 miles per gallon in the city and 26 miles per gallon on the highway.

The Mariner Hybrid has a MSRP of $29,840 — $3,500 more than the standard model. But Ford said Wednesday that its hybrids would be wrapped into a new "Keep It Simple" incentive program with its other vehicles.

The Escape Hybrid will sell for $26,104 — $1,411 less than its suggested retail price. Ford did not state whether the discount for the Mariner Hybrid, which is built on an Escape platform but with more luxury features, would be any different.

The Escape Hybrid sold 20,000 units in its first year, and Ford started taking online orders of the Mariner Hybrid in July.

Tom Brewer, general marketing manager for Lincoln and Mercury, said the company sold 500 of the vehicles before production began.

Ford hopes that popularity continues as it and General Motors Corp., the nation's largest automaker, reported 23 percent declines in vehicle sales for October.

Japanese automakers enjoy a sizable lead in the hybrid market. Toyota began selling hybrid versions of its Highlander and Lexus RX SUVs this year and plans to sell 300,000 hybrids worldwide in 2005. U.S. consumers have bought more than 100,000 Toyota Priuses since 2000.

Honda last year began selling a hybrid Accord sedan, its third hybrid vehicle in the U.S. market.

Gioia said Ford's offerings should attract customers wary of high fuel prices or facing increased emission standards in California and other parts of the country. She also noted that the new energy bill approved by Congress earlier this year gives buyers of 2006 model hybrids a tax credit of up to $2,000.

Activists split
The vehicle has engendered a mixed reaction from the environmental community, which has often pilloried Ford for its large fleet of fuel inefficient pickup trucks and SUVs.

The Sierra Club has praised Ford for introducing a second hybrid and has even begun driving one to organizational meetings, drumming up support for the Mariner Hybrid.

Other groups, such as the San Francisco-based Rainforest Action Network, criticize the small number of hybrids being produced versus the 3 million vehicles Ford produced last year and said the automaker should do more to improve the fuel efficiency and emissions of its regular gasoline-powered engines.

Gioia said the company has tailored its hybrid production numbers to customer demand and continues to install technical innovations into its regular line of vehicles. For example, the Kansas City plant next month will begin building a version of the popular F-150 pickup that can use corn-based ethanol fuel.

"I think holistically we're doing a darn good job," she said.

Copyright 2005 The Associated Press. All rights reserved. This material may not be published, broadcast, rewritten or redistributed.

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