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Hybrids a hit at Detroit auto show

Ford’s new Escape Hybrid SUV won the truck of the year award at the granddaddy of all car exhibits, a reflection of the greening of the North American International Auto Show.
/ Source: staff and news service reports

Ford’s new Escape Hybrid SUV won the "Truck of the Year" award at the granddaddy of all car exhibits, the North American International Auto Show. The award reflects a greening of the event, with Ford and others talking up additional hybrid plans and General Motors unveiling a greatly improved fuel-cell vehicle.

The Escape Hybrid is the first SUV to combine a gasoline engine and electric motor assisted by a battery pack. While the technology makes it about $3,300 more expensive than a V-6 Escape, it also allows the front-wheel drive version to get 35-40 mpg in city driving, nearly double the mileage of a V-6 Escape. Higher mileage also means significantly reduced pollution and emissions tied to global warming.

“The Escape Hybrid means consumers with some extra disposable income can help the environment without having to sacrifice either performance or capability,” said Chris Jensen, automotive editor of The Plain Dealer in Cleveland.

Ford has sold 3,000 Escape Hybrids and expects to build another 20,000 this year.

The awards were announced Sunday during media previews at the auto show, one of the industry’s most prestigious stages and home to 6,600 journalists from more than 60 countries for the next few days.

To be eligible, a vehicle must be substantially changed from the previous model or a completely new vehicle.

The honor is awarded by 50 full-time automotive journalists. A hybrid, Toyota's Prius, won last year’s car of the year award. This year's car award went to the Chrysler 300.

Other hybrid moves
Besides Sunday's hybrid award, automakers unveiled hybrid plans.

Ford said it will start selling a hybrid version of the Mercury Mariner SUV this year — a year earlier than originally announced — and begin full-scale production of a hybrid Mazda Tribute SUV within two years. Ford owns about one-third of Mazda Motor Corp.

The company also said hybrid versions of the upcoming Ford Fusion and Mercury Milan sedans will be on the road in 2008.

General Motors introduced an Opel Astra diesel hybrid concept, which it said will be 25 percent more fuel efficient than comparable compact diesels. The concept is the first in the collaboration between GM and DaimlerChrysler to build hybrid engines.

GM was also introducing a hybrid SUV concept called the GMC Graphyte, with an engine system similar to hybrid versions of the GMC Yukon and Chevy Tahoe SUVs, due in 2007. The Graphyte would get 25 percent better fuel economy but still have the power of a comparably sized SUV, GM said.

GM and Chrysler already sell hybrid pickups, but the systems are less advanced and fuel-efficient than those developed by Ford, Toyota and Honda.

Toyota’s Prius, first launched in Japan in 1997, is the most popular hybrid in the United States with sales of 53,991 in 2004. Customers often have to wait six months to get one, despite a price premium of about $3,000 over similarly sized vehicles.

Toyota said in October it would double the number of Prius hybrids for the U.S. market in 2005. The company aims to sell 300,000 hybrid vehicles worldwide by the end of this year.

Toyota also plans to begin selling hybrid versions of its Highlander and Lexus RX SUVs in the United States this year.

Honda, for its part, last December began selling its third hybrid car in the United States, a high-performance version of its popular Accord sedan.

GM's new fuel cell concept car
Even as the popularity of hybrids grows, automakers have said gas-electric engines are a transitional technology that eventually will be replaced by hydrogen-powered fuel cells.

GM has said it hopes to start using fuel cells in marketable cars by 2010, and at the Detroit auto show unveiled its Sequel concept, which doubles the range of most other hydrogen-powered fuel cell cars while improving acceleration to 60 mph in under 10 seconds.

“Three years ago, our chairman and CEO, Rick Wagoner, challenged us to completely rethink the automobile,” GM R&D Vice President Larry Burns said in a statement. “The Autonomy and Hy-wire concepts were the outgrowth of that challenge — a revolution in how vehicles would be designed, built and used in the future. But, they were concepts. Today, with Sequel, the vision is real — not yet affordable, but doable.”

“With Sequel,” Burns added, “virtually everything is packaged in an 11-inch ‘skateboard’ chassis, building on what we first showed the world in the AUTOnomy and Hy-wire.”

Ford, meanwhile, touted its approach of using hydrogen in internal combustion engines. It announced that the state of Florida is its first customer for eight hydrogen-powered Ford E-450 buses that will debut in 2006.

The Dallas International Airport is also interested in using the buses starting next year, Ford said.