New hybrid SUVs offer more pickup

/ Source: CNBC

The new Toyota Highlander SUV –- which rolls out in March -- looks like its conventional gasoline powered cousin. But what’s different about this SUV -- as well as other new hybrids now coming on the market -– is that it’s not just about the fuel efficiency and lower emissions. It's also about the performance.

In Austin, Texas, Kent Benjamin is part of the next generation of hybrid owners. He didn't buy his Honda Accord hybrid just for its improved mileage or lower emissions. He went for its performance.

“I was very surprised and pleased to find out that this car actually drives, I think, noticeably better than the regular Honda,” he said.

The Accord Hybrid is just one of the new gas/electric cars with more oomph than their standard counter parts. In March, the Lexus RX400h will have 270-horsepower. In April, Toyota's Highlander hybrid will go 0-to-60 almost a full second faster than a conventional Highlander.

'The Holy Grail'
“The fact that it was going to have improved performance was like the Holy Grail,” said Ernest Bastien a marketing managers at Toyota. “It’s like, wow, this is really going to mean something to consumers. It’s going to be far beyond what they expect.”

Even though the Highlander hybrid will have sticker price $4,000 to $5,000 above a regular Highlander, Toyota believers it will sell well because the gas/electric power train gives this six cylinder SUV the power and acceleration of a 8-cylinder.

“You put your foot on the gas and it goes,” said Jean Jennings, editor of Automobile magazine. “What Toyota did was spend a lot of money to really produce the highest tech hybrid.”

The potent triple play of more power, better gas mileage and less pollution explains why hybrid sales are taking off -- from 88,000 last year to an estimated 222,000 this year and a projected 300,000 next year. (That still represents a small fraction of the roughly 16.5 million cars and light trucks sold in the U.S. last year.)

Much of the growth in sales of hybrids is being driven by eco-friendly SUV's like Ford's Escape hybrid. While Chrysler and General Motors have been slow to roll out hybrids, the Japanese auto-makers are not slowing down.

“A lot of Japanese manufacturers are touting the performance aspect of hybrids,” said Michael Robinet, an auto industry analyst at CSM Marketing.

Those claims are winning over drivers like Phil Goethelf, who lives outside New York city. He already has a gas/electric Toyota Prius but he wants more power. So he is buying another hybrid.

“Hybrid vehicles, I believe, are the wave of the future,” he said. “And most importantly, they now have the power -- even more power than the conventional gasoline car.”

Toyota truly does believe it has the Holy Grail in terms of making people realize that hybrids are not futuristic science projects. To achieve performance gains, the Highlander has a conventional engine aided by electric motors attached to each axle.  That’s what accounts for the vehicle’s strong acceleration -- especially between 40 and 60 miles an hour. And that's why the hybrid version goes 0 to 60 a full second faster than the conventional Highlander.

As for gas mileage, the Highlander gets somewhere in the range of 28 to 30 miles per gallon on the highway. That’s about a third better than the conventional Highlander. Toyota probably could have boosted it more, but they’ve opted for using the technology to boost both mileage and performance.