Ford's new hybrids tell Toyota: Catch me if you can

Ford Motor fwill announce Wednesday that it plans to beat Toyota tm at its own game when it comes to hybrids.

It's the latest example of U.S. automakers trying to "out-hybrid" Japanese brands that had a head start with the gas savers.

Also today, South Korea's Hyundai is expected to announce that in two years it will market its first U.S. hybrids. They will use a revolutionary lithium polymer battery that the company boasts will hold 20 times the charge in half the size of rivals' present hybrid batteries.

Both announcements are being made at the Los Angeles Auto Show, the first major car forum of the season and a traditional showcase for unveiling high-mileage, low-pollution alternative technologies.

When it comes to hybrids, the developments show how other automakers are hustling to try to get ahead of competition from Toyota's next-generation Prius, to be unveiled in Detroit in January, and General Motor's plug-in Volt, which starts production in 2010.

"This is simply an evolution of what's been happening for a while, but it's accelerated because of gas prices. Prices are down now, but nobody expects they will stay there," says Ron Cogan, publisher of the Green Car Journal and creator of the Green Car of the Year award, to be announced here Thursday.

Hybrids make up only about 3.5% of the U.S. automotive market, Ford says, and even less overseas. But the forecasted return of high gas prices and an increase in government-mandated gas-mileage standards are driving automaker interest.

Ford says it benchmarked its new Fusion and Mercury Milan Hybrid midsize sedans against the Toyota Camry Hybrid.

The new Fords will get government fuel mileage ratings of at least 39 miles per gallon in city driving, a 6 mpg improvement over the similar-size Camry Hybrid, says Nancy Gioia, Ford's hybrid chief. In highway driving, the Fords should be at least 2 mpg better than Camry.

"What we're going to target is customers who do a lot of city driving, (who) really see the benefit of hybrids," Gioia (JOY-ya) says.

The Ford hybrid also will cruise at up to 47 miles per hour on electric power alone, much faster than rival models. And the engine will shut off more often than in the past to leave the car running only on electric power.

Reached for comment, Toyota spokesman Irv Miller says he welcomes the challenge. More new product "further legitimizes the hybrid business," he said. While he added he is unfamiliar with Ford's plans, it appears "they made improvements in their (vehicles) just as we will in our next generation."

Hyundai will announce production of its mainstream Sonata sedan starting in 2010 using a lithium polymer battery. It says the new cells are more sophisticated than the nickel-metal hydride batteries used by all brands of hybrids today. In addition to its size and charge advantages, it weighs 30% less and is 10% more efficient, according to Hyundai.

With superior lithium polymer batteries, Hyundai claims it is also leapfrogging over lithium ion batteries being developed for most plug-in hybrids coming in the next decade.

Automakers are hedging their bets on energy alternatives, though. Toyota, for instance, is going to show off here a concept version of the Camry Hybrid powered by compressed natural gas. At present, only Honda sells a CNG-powered car, a Civic.

Honda is going to announce that its new Insight sedan, of which a concept version will be seen at the show, will have a feature called Eco Assist to coach drivers into saving more fuel. The instrument cluster will glow green when drivers ease from stops and go light on the accelerator, and it turns blue for lead feet. A button marked "ECON" sets the car to drive in fuel-saving mode, including adjusting the air conditioner. Insight goes on sale next spring.

Ford is taking the same approach in its Fusion Hybrid with a feature called SmartGauge, which also coaches drivers to increase fuel savings.

"Each generation, these hybrids are getting better," says Roland Hwang, vehicle policy director for the Natural Resources Defense Council. "The Japanese have an incredible head start over the domestics, but they (U.S. makers) can catch up with the right kind of investments."