Hybrid Cars Come of Age

A new breed of hybrids blurs the savings picture further because the technology is being used by some makers for power rather than fuel savings. Honda's Accord Hybrid, for example, doesn't save gas or cut emissions over its conventional sibling, but it essentially offers the power of an eight-cylinder engine with the fuel efficiency of a six-cylinder motor. The same can be said for Toyota's Highlander Hybrid, which supplies the power of an eight cylinders by coupling the hybrid technology with a six-cylinder engine. The Toyota SUV is powerful enough to offer towing capabilities, but green it's not.

One reason the hybrids don't do even better in terms of fuel savings may be the way most were built. The market-leading Prius was designed as a hybrid car from the ground up. All the others, like Ford's Escape Hybrid, are simply the original versions with hybrid technology squeezed in -- the 150 pounds or more of batteries usually take up a good chunk of the trunk, or are located under the rear passenger seat.

And not all hybrids use the technology in the same way. While the Prius and Camry hybrids can run for short bursts or even several miles only on the electric motor, which is recharged from the engine and braking systems, Honda's Civic and Saturn's Vue can't do that. The gas motor must always be employed.

The MPG Game

Hybrid supporters say you can achieve some impressive mileage figures, if you change your driving habits to favor the all-electric mode. But not everyone is convinced.

A Honda Civic Hybrid owner is suing the company, claiming that the car doesn't even come close to meeting the advertised mileage claim of 49 miles per gallon city and 51 mpg on the highway. The California man, who is seeking class-action status for his suit, noted that Honda's ad claimed up to 650 miles on a single tank of gas, or an average of 51 mpg. He says he averaged about 32 mpg after driving 6,000 miles.

This is one reason the U.S. government is changing the way it measures and reports mpg figures for vehicles to make them more "real world." Previously, EPA ratings didn't consider stop-and-go traffic, cold weather or posted speed limits of 65 or 70 mph currently found on today's highways. Starting in the 2008 model year, the figures on the window sticker will drop for hybrids in particular -- the Prius, for example, will fall to 48/45 mpg (city/highway) from 60/51.

Meanwhile, most of the world's top carmakers are planning to roll out hybrid cars by 2010 or so. Lexus will soon introduce the 2008 LS 600h L -- starting MSRP is $104,715, or $33,000 more than the nonhybrid LS460 L on which it's based. It will get 20/22 mpg -- not exactly parsimonious on fuel but not bad for a 438-horsepower car that weighs more than 5,000 pounds.

GM is planning the "Volt," which can go up to 40 miles on a plug-in charge with a small gasoline engine for on-the-go recharging. Plug-in only cars largely failed on the U.S. market because of their range limitations.

So what about Al Gore's son and that 105 mph he achieved in his Prius, according to arresting officers? Toyota says that speed isn't unusual for the car. Toyota tested a Prius on the Bonneville Salt Flats (with wider tires and a change in gearing) at 130.8 miles an hour. The Toyota buff Web sites put the top speed of the stock Prius at a respectable 109 mph.

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