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New choices boost hybrids into mainstream

A raft of new and upcoming hybrid vehicles from manufacturers both foreign and domestic is signaling the mainstreaming of a once-niche class.
Hybrids, a class once comprised entirely of undersized, underpowered, and overpriced niche vehicles, has gone mainstream. Although overall market share is still low, 2006 and 2007 cars mark a major transition for the technology and hybrid are popping up in a wide variety of vehicle styles.
Hybrids, a class once comprised entirely of undersized, underpowered, and overpriced niche vehicles, has gone mainstream. Although overall market share is still low, 2006 and 2007 cars mark a major transition for the technology and hybrid are popping up in a wide variety of vehicle styles. Honda
/ Source: BusinessWeek Online

Reaching the limit of a juicy tax break has never looked so good. Toyota announced in July that it has reached the 60,000-vehicle production limit of gas-electric hybrids set by the federal government for a consumer tax credit that could, in some cases, significantly ease the cost premium of hybrid cars over similar conventionally powered vehicles.

That means that credits on Toyota hybrids purchased beginning this October will be halved. According to current legislation, the credits will continue gradually shrinking until they disappear entirely in October 2007. Hybrids offered by Honda, Ford and General Motors are still eligible for the full credit. Ultimately, Congress could extend the benefit, but the fate of the credit remains in the balance.

Still, the milestone is significant. Hybrids, a class once comprised entirely of undersized, underpowered, and overpriced niche vehicles, has gone mainstream. Although overall market share is still low, 2006 and 2007 cars mark a major transition for the technology. Hybrid powertrains are popping up in a wide variety of vehicle styles, from sport-utility vehicles to luxury cars of both foreign and domestic provenance.

As choices grow, hybrids are increasingly capable of meeting varied needs beyond simple fuel efficiency. But that's also made choosing the right vehicle harder. As with conventionally powered cars, considering daily usage needs is the safest route to take. So how do you decide which hybrid is best for you? Remember, while all offer significant fuel economy over regular cars, the growing range of models ensures that there is a hybrid for nearly every person and walk of life.

If utility matters most...
The days of miniscule, two-seat hybrids that would make any serious soccer mom shrug with indifference are over. Ford broke new ground when it introduced the $26,215 Escape Hybrid that merged typical utilitarian SUV digs with a futuristic powertrain. Now, broadened offerings from Mercury and Toyota's slightly pricier $37,890 Highlander mean utility doesn't have to be sacrificed.

For pickup-lovers, there are hybrid versions of the Chevy Silverado and GMC Sierra, both around $30,000 depending on equipment, though availability is highly limited. What's more, critics have panned the trucks for fuel economy and emissions below standards set by other hybrids. Both trucks can, however, provide power through four 120-volt AC outlets.

If a hybrid is a fashion statement...
The Prius came into favor in Hollywood with the likes of Leonardo DiCaprio and Cameron Diaz hopping in. That significantly boosted the car's cool factor and national profile. Critics argue that hybrids have benefited unduly from a wave of faddish popularity that's out of proportion to their inherent benefits.

Nevertheless, if your interest in hybrid technology has a star quality to it, one of the newly minted luxury hybrids may appeal. Lexus' offerings pair traditional high-end amenities with hybrid technology. The integration is seamless, but in guaranteeing luxury-level power, mileage suffers. That means more-prol Civics and Prius cars will likely get better mileage.

If conservation matters most...
Seven years old, Honda's tiny $19,330 Insight is bound to get looks. The product of a single ambition — to eke out as much fuel economy as possible — the Insight still tops the list of's most fuel-efficient cars. Newer hybrids have eclipsed the car in technology but not overall fuel economy. The Honda Insight will cease production this fall, but the company has said it would offer a vehicle smaller than the Civic to replace it. Until then, Honda's own Civic or Toyota's Prius follow in the Insight's footsteps.

If money is no object...
Fuel-misers who want to spend big on their hybrids are thanking Lexus this year. That's because the addition of the GS450h finally means a high-performance luxury hybrid is available for above $50,000. True to form, this Lexus produces 339 horses and gets to sixty in 5.2 seconds, slightly faster than its gas-only powered counterpart. While fuel economy suffers, the GS450h still qualifies as a Super Ultra Low Emissions Vehicle.

If you can wait...
If there's one thing that's clear about the developing hybrid market, it's that it almost always pays to wait. Not only is technology advancing quickly but more and more manufacturers are climbing on board. Saturn (GM ) and Nissan, for instance, are getting into the hybrid game for the 2007 model year. And manufacturers in all segments have presented hybrid projects at varying stages of development. That means if you can wait, very likely your favorite brand will be offering a hybrid sometime soon.

So how do hybrids work? Despite the growth in offerings and popularity, a number of misperceptions linger. Hybrids, though made more efficient by a host of electrical components under the hood, do not need to be plugged in. Fears that batteries would wear out, forcing costly replacements, haven't panned out. A mixture of technological innovation and long-term extended warranties have allayed such concerns considerably. And Honda's Accord hybrid as well as the Lexus stable of hybrids are helping do away with slow-poke stereotypes.

Hybrids pair electric components with traditional gas-sipping engines to increase overall fuel economy. The smartest vehicles take a holistic approach by, for example, recapturing energy normally wasted during braking, idling, and coasting. Milder hybrids, sometimes referred to as mybrids, forgo more sophisticated technologies, focusing instead on marginal fuel-consumption improvements and lowered emissions. Fuel-economy gains range widely, anywhere from 10 percent to 40 percent, and sticker prices carry a roughly $3,000 premium.

Model options of all types have grown significantly since Toyota released the first Prius in Japan in 1997 and Honda unveiled the U.S. version of the Insight in 1999. Both those vehicles were small and relatively underpowered.

Hybridization of a nation
But since the millennium, when the American Prius was launched, nearly every year has seen the introduction of at least one new model. Improvements in performance and technology have followed. David Friedman, research director of the Clean Vehicles Program for the Union of Concerned Scientists, says one of the chief benefits of the technology is that it is easily transplanted from one vehicle type to another. "There's no reason why there shouldn't be a hybrid in every class of car on the market," he says. "You name it, you can hybridize it."

And hybridize manufacturers have. Honda's everyman sedan, the Civic, got the hybrid treatment for model-year 2003, and a redesigned, upsized, futuristic-looking Prius was presented for model-year 2004. Ford, meanwhile, was first to the hybrid SUV party with the 2005 Escape. And Toyota followed suit with its Highlander and Lexus RX 400h SUVs. Also new for the 2006 model year are yet more high-end luxury hybrids. Along with its midsize offering, Lexus added the high-performance GS 450h sedan, which delivers an impressive 339 horsepower. (Compare that to the original Insight's anemic 67 horses and you get a sense of the progress.)

Expectations may not always be in line with reality, though. Some owners may be disappointed by real-world fuel economy, which has a hard time matching the EPA's sticker-printed estimates. Road conditions, everyday usage, and driving styles often result in lower mileage. And for largely the same reasons, those expecting a return on investment will have to wait, most likely indefinitely.

Beyond good mileage
But hybrid perks extend beyond mere mileage. Many states offer credits and rebates independent of the federal government, including HOV privileges on certain highways. Some private employers even offer additional incentives. For example, Bank Of America last month launched a pilot hybrid credit program that puts it on the path to potentially becoming the nation's biggest corporate sponsor of environmentally friendly vehicles. The widely watched program offers eligible employees an additional $3,000 rebate on the 14 gas-electric hybrids identified by the federal government

And, though not along typical horsepower and cylinder lines, hybrids do confer unique bragging rights on their owners, packed as they are with advanced technologies underhood. Many industry observers see hybrid technology as a bridge to further developments rather than an end-game solution. That most likely means early-adopter status for today's hybrid buyers.

The long list of coming attractions, both immediate and long-term, only further cements the mainstreaming of hybrid cars. For 2007, Nissan will offer a hybrid Altima and GM a "Green Line" version of the Saturn Vue SUV. In the long term expect hybrid versions across the spectrum, from the Toyota Sienna minivan to the Chevrolet Tahoe.