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Hybrid buyer's guide

Want to buy a gas/electric vehicle? Here's a look at options for car buyers.
Ford Escape Hybrid.AP
/ Source: Forbes

"I'm thinking about getting one of those hybrid cars" is something being said a lot these days.

Unfortunately, customers with such feelings don't have many choices — for now. Watch this space for future hybrid buyer's guides and you will see more and more gas/electric vehicles in showrooms. From mainstream automakers such as General Motors to low-volume specialists such as Porsche, companies of all sorts are hurrying to prepare hybrids for market.

The slide show that follows is a guide to 2006-model hybrids (the model year is already underway). The field is small now, but these types of vehicles are about to see a growth spurt. Companies that currently sell hybrids are planning to offer even more. Toyota Motor, which sells the Prius hybrid sedan and Highlander Hybrid and Lexus RX 400h hybrid SUVs, is planning to introduce a hybrid version of its top-selling Camry sedan next year, as well as a hybrid version of the Lexus GS luxury sedan, which will go into production in the middle or latter part of 2006.

Hybrids are also on the rise in America. Ford Motor chairman William C. Ford Jr. recently said his company's goal is to increase hybrid production tenfold, to 250,000 hybrids per year by 2010. About half of the models at Ford and its Lincoln and Mercury subsidiaries will have hybrid versions available.

One day, a hybrid option will be will be available on each car in a typical automaker's model range. Toyota, noting the popularity of the Prius (sales are up more than 130 percent this year and will top 100,000 units in 2005), recently established a goal of selling more than one million hybrids a year globally early in the next decade — about 600,000 annually in the U.S. Globally, Toyota is developing more than ten hybrid models.

Automotive shareholders, however, should note that not every automaker is gung-ho to build hybrids. recently quoted Carlos Ghosn, Nissan Motor's president, as saying hybrids are a "terrible business proposition" and a "niche technology" accounting for "less than 1 percent of global sales."

Other automakers are finding hybrids will have smaller profit margins than regular cars — if they make money at all — until their development costs decrease. Toyota's Prius came out in 1997 and did not break even until just before the introduction of a second-generation car in model-year 2004.

Consumer backlash against hybrids has also taken several forms. Lofty mileage estimates have, in many cases, seemed unrealistically high to hybrid owners who cannot reproduce optimal fuel economy with typical driving patterns. Lead feet and air conditioning, for example, can decrease a hybrid's mileage.

And throttle-happy drivers can be disappointed by hybrids. We have driven a Toyota Prius on the challenging, twisty Angeles Crest Highway outside Los Angeles, where the elevation changes frequently and dramatically, and found the Prius huffing and puffing as it tried to go where we wanted it to go. The Prius has 110 horsepower, which is pathetic for a midsize sedan. Even the Camry SE V-6, which is not a performance car, has 105 percent more hp (225) and 71 percent more hp-per-pound.

Then there are the annoying hybrid waiting lists. Some customers have waited months to take deliveries of their cars. Asked the average waiting time for a Prius, a Toyota spokeswoman said in a recent phone interview that "that's hard for us to calculate. It varies from place to place."

Customers may also be surprised to learn that hybrids, despite their fuel economy, cost more to buy, and operate, than cheaper, fuel-efficient compact cars. That's because hybrids command a price premium. The base price of the Lexus RX 400h hybrid ($49,185) is 34 percent higher than that of the model on which it is based, the Lexus RX 330. The base price of Ford's Escape Hybrid ($27,400) is 37 percent higher than that of the regular Ford Escape.

Of course, hybrids are like flat-screen TVs: not worth it if the bottom line is your top priority, but worth it if you adore the technology. And hybrid buyers — especially ardent environmentalists — adore hybrids. The cars achieve unbeatable gas mileage and are 80 percent cleaner than regular cars. They consume less gas, and they produce fewer emissions. In a recent statement, Lexus said you could drive an RX 400h round-trip from Los Angeles to New York nine times and produce fewer smog-forming emissions than you would by painting one room of your house with a gallon of paint.

But if you are waffling over whether to buy a hybrid, consider that diesels may be a better bet. They can be outstanding performance cars, such as the diesel version of DaimlerChrysler's Mercedes-Benz E-Class sedan, and they have good long-term track records. But even Daimler is now jumping on the hybrid bandwagon. In August, it announced that its Chrysler Group would be developing a hybrid Dodge Durango in conjunction with GM to develop hybrids. Even more curious, a few weeks later, long-time Mercedes rival BMW — another hybrid hold-out — signed a memorandum of understanding with the intent to enter into a definitive agreement with GM and DCX later in the year.

In spite of the sudden spike of interest in hybrids, though, they remain unproven in the long-term. "Just what am I going to do with the dead batteries in six years (I live in Florida, where batteries die early) and how much will it cost?" writes one reader in a recent e-mail message. The answer is, potentially, thousands of dollars.

Hybrids come with extra weight and complexity, and their fuel-economy benefits may be visible only to a select group of drivers. While most cars have better mileage on the highway than in the city, hybrids are frequently the opposite, delivering their best results in stop-and-go traffic, because their engines can shut off at stops.

But a lengthy hybrid versus diesel comparison is a subject for another story. This article presumes an interest in hybrids, and seeks to provide a pithy overview of what's available. The slide show that follows offers photos and information about hybrids, including pricing, mileage and crash-test scores.

The source for crash-test scores is the U.S. Department of Transportation's National Highway Traffic Safety Administration (NHTSA), which rates vehicles on a scale of one to five stars. NHTSA's frontal crash tests evaluate the chance of an injury that requires immediate hospitalization and may be life threatening in head-on collisions between similar vehicles, each going 35 mph. A three-star frontal-crash rating means a 21 percent to 35 percent chance of such a serious injury in such a crash; a five-star rating means a chance of 10 percent or less.

For side crash tests, NHTSA slams a 3,015-pound barrier at 38.5 mph into a standing vehicle. A three-star side crash-test rating means an 11 percent to 20 percent chance of serious injury following a side impact; a five-star rating means a chance of 5 percent or less.

The hybrids in the slide show have good crash-test scores to complement excellent mileage and, in some cases, reasonable prices. Potential hybrid customers can consider the list a starting point — just as they can consider these times a starting point in the development of hybrid technology.