Ford Motor Corp.  /  AP
This 2005 Ford Escape Hybrid is among the gas-electric SUVs now available to drivers.
updated 9/14/2005 9:39:29 AM ET 2005-09-14T13:39:29

David Miller used to drive a Jeep. But when he recently replaced his four-wheel-drive Grand Cherokee, he chose a new kind of sport utility vehicle: the Ford Escape Hybrid.

“I was very worried about our dependence on foreign oil, and instead of waiting for someone in government to do something, I decided I would do what I can,” said Miller, a Washington resident, adding that he also wanted a higher-mileage vehicle in these days of soaring gasoline prices.

With a four-cylinder, gasoline engine supplemented by on-board electric power, the Escape Hybrid ranked as the most fuel-thrifty SUV for the 2005 model year, rating as high as 36 miles a gallon in city driving and 31 mpg on the highway for a two-wheel-drive model.

“I have 50 years of purchasing ahead of me,” said Miller, a 32-year-old graduate student at George Mason University. “And I want more (hybrid technology and hybrid choices).”

He’s getting his wish. The variety of hybrids and their sales in the United States are increasing. In the 2006 model year, Americans have more hybrid vehicles to choose from — 10 — than ever before.

They range from a two-seat Honda hatchback called the Insight that has a starting price of about $20,000 to a luxurious Lexus SUV, the RX 400h, which starts at $49,060.

New for 2006 are Mercury’s first hybrid, the Mariner Hybrid SUV, and the first Toyota-branded SUV hybrid, the Highlander Hybrid.

In addition, consumers will find a new-generation, 2006 Honda Civic Hybrid in showrooms that is restyled and has a better fuel economy rating than its predecessor — 51 miles a gallon in both city and highway driving.

And more hybrids are coming in calendar 2006 and beyond.

44 models by 2012
According to automotive researcher J.D. Power and Associates of Westlake Village, Calif., there could be 44 hybrid nameplates in the United States by 2012.

Lexus is readying the world’s first luxury hybrid sedan, the GS 450h, for a spring 2006 debut, and Mercury and Nissan have announced plans for upcoming hybrid vehicles.

Indeed, Jim Press, president and chief operating officer of Toyota Motor Sales U.S.A. Inc., said his company is looking at offering hybrid power in virtually all Toyotas, including trucks.

“People are buying hybrids for good reasons beyond fuel economy,” he said. “They realize hybrids are a simple way to make an important difference in curtailing foreign-oil dependence, air pollution and greenhouse gases, plus they’re a lot of fun to drive. Being able to thumb your nose at gas stations on a regular basis is an added bonus.”

Even with the hype, actual hybrid sales numbers remain small. In calendar 2004, gas-electric hybrids accounted for just 0.5 percent of U.S. new vehicle sales. They could rise to 3.5 percent by 2012, Power reported.

But hybrid sales in the United States began only in 1999 when Honda started selling the Insight. As time has gone on, hybrids no longer seem experimental.

“Many buyers of the first-generation Prius and Insight were tree huggers,” said Wes Brown, partner at the automotive research firm Iceology, of Westwood, Calif. “Now, these hybrids have a much broader buyer base.”

Some, he said, are “this influential group who says, ‘I can project this (environmental) image and feel good about myself.’ The hybrids (also) are technology-laden, so some people feel it’s cool to drive one.”

And since hybrids like the Highlander and Honda Accord don’t look substantially different than their gas-only counterparts, they are attracting mainstream buyers, too, he said.

Rising gasoline prices are furthering the trend. According to a recent study by CNW Marketing Research in Bandon, Ore., 32 percent of American new-car buyers say they would “seriously consider” a hybrid if gas prices reached $3.75 a gallon. That’s up from 19 percent in 2002.

The price difference
To be sure, there is an initial hurdle for shoppers on a budget. Because of the additional technology needed to manage the dual engine/electric powertrain, hybrids tend to be higher priced than comparable gas-only models.

For example, with a manufacturer’s suggested retail price, including destination charge, of $27,515, the 2006 Escape Hybrid is $4,365 more than a similarly-equipped, gas-only Escape XLT SUV. It would take the average driver who travels 15,000 miles a year more than five years to recoup this extra cost, even if gas were $3.50 a gallon.

And this assumes the hybrid delivers the fuel economy that’s on the window sticker. While some hybrid drivers attest that through careful driving and good vehicle maintenance they do get top mileage, many drivers of both hybrid and non-hybrid vehicles do not. The reason stems from how the government fuel mileage ratings are compiled — in a laboratory, not in the real world.

Another issue for hybrids — the fear among some emergency workers that they could be injured by electricity flowing in the vehicles’ power lines — is abating, according to automakers, who have distributed technical briefing materials to rescue personnel around the country. The vehicles have automatic power shutdowns, such as when airbags deploy, they said.

In addition, Hideharu Takemoto, principal engineer for the 2006 Honda Civic Hybrid, said hybrid developers make sure electric cables and parts are “apt to be near the center of the vehicle so emergency people are very unlikely to cut into them.”

That still didn’t stop the nation’s largest auto insurer, State Farm, from running a program this summer to educate first responders about how to spot a hybrid that has crashed and what to do.

Battery replacement issue
Other concerns about hybrids center on the cost of replacing their large nickel metal hydride battery packs, where electric power is stored, and how long they last. Cost estimates range upwards from $2,000, leaving some consumers planning to trade cars before the battery warranty expires, typically after eight to 10 years.

But Honda’s Takemoto said no American consumer has yet to pay for a battery replacement on Honda’s oldest hybrid, the Insight. Some Insights have traveled 200,000 miles now, he said, and all batteries that have been replaced have been covered by warranty.

For his part, Miller, who has driven his hybrid SUV cross country, said he isn’t worried.

The technology “is here and now,” he said. “I’m willing to be a little bit of a guinea pig.”

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