The mass adoption of hybrid technology may still be years into the future, but the rate at which carmakers are rolling out new hybrid models suggests that the pace is accelerating. Ford, General Motors, Honda, Nissan and Toyota have all announced plans for more hybrid models. BMW, DaimlerChrysler and GM are working jointly on a full-hybrid system for their vehicles. As part of this initiative, GM brings hybrid power to some of its largest models, like the Cadillac Escalade, Chevrolet Tahoe and GMC Yukon, starting with the 2008 model year.
DaimlerChrysler will add hybrid capability to its 5.7-liter Hemi V8 - an engine known for power and performance, not fuel efficiency - and offer this configuration in the Chrysler Aspen and Dodge Durango SUVs. Chrysler's corporate cousin, Mercedes-Benz, will eventually adopt hybrid technology as well. A joint effort by Audi/VW and Porsche will surely put hybrid vehicles in these automakers' lineups in the coming years. The growing popularity of hybrids means that virtually every major auto manufacturer is planning to make hybrids part of their offerings at the showroom.
Gasoline/electric hybrids combine two disparate powerplants - an internal combustion engine and an efficient electric-drive motor, or multiple electric motors - to bring the best possible efficiencies to a small but growing number of models. They do so seamlessly and in ways that do not require anything extraordinary from the driver. There's no need to plug in a hybrid or calculate how far it can go before batteries must be replenished. In fact, unlike the battery-electric vehicles of the 1990s, there is no plug to be found. Hybrids charge themselves while driving, and range is determined by the amount of gasoline in the tank, just like any other conventionally powered vehicle.
Early models, like the two-seat Honda Insight hatchback and first-generation Toyota Prius sedan, blazed the hybrid trail with amazingly high fuel economy, up to 70 mpg in the case of the Insight. But these smallish vehicles offered quirky designs and largely appealed to techies and early adopters who embraced their unique look and feel. That all changed as later hybrid models have become more mainstream and aim squarely at a broader range of buyers.
For instance, when it emerged as an all-new, four-door hatchback model in 2004, the second-generation Prius grew larger, more stylish, more accommodating and more powerful than its predecessor. It also features some of Toyota's best new technology. This model became so popular during the early stages of rising gas prices that an unprecedented backlog of 24,000 orders piled up, causing Toyota to increase production and scramble for components unique to its hybrid model. As of early 2007, Toyota seems to have brought Prius production in line with demand.
Toyota added a hybrid variant of its top-selling Toyota Camry sedan for 2006, borrowing a strategy from its chief rival, Honda. Early on, Honda brought hybrid power to its volume models - the Civic and Accord - rather then relegating it to a unique model, like Toyota did for several years with its Prius. Honda's decision to discontinue the Insight model after the 2006 model year while keeping its Accord and Civic hybrids is another indication of how hybrid vehicles are evolving toward the mainstream.
Other manufacturers have followed Honda and Toyota's lead: Ford and Mercury offer hybrid variants of the Escape and Mariner SUVs; Nissan has added a hybrid version of the Altima sedan; and Saturn sells hybrid variants of its Aura sedan and Vue SUV. There are others, as well. Bringing hybrid technology to mainstream volume models should work to bring down costs of this advanced technology, thanks to the efficiencies of mass production.
With SUVs being such hot sellers in recent years, it was only natural for manufacturers to apply power to these popular vehicles. Ford responded with the first hybrid-powered SUV, the Escape Hybrid, and followed by bringing its Mercury twin, the Mariner Hybrid, to showrooms a year earlier than planned due to growing hybrid sales. Toyota introduced the Lexus RX 400h, a hybrid variant of its popular RX 330 SUV, with a Toyota Highlander Hybrid on its heels. One of the most recent SUV entries is Saturn's Vue Green Line Hybrid, a model with a simpler and less-expensive hybrid system that achieves about a 25 percent improvement in fuel efficiency and very low emissions. The company has even pledged to bring a plug-in variant with extended electric-only range to market in coming years.
As manufacturers continue to experiment with alternative fuels, hybrid technology remains a useful stopgap for achieving immediate gains in efficiency while lowering emissions. Even some of the largest passenger vehicles that are least likely to be associated with fuel efficiency will soon have batteries and electric motors to aid propulsion. In addition to introducing the previously mentioned hybrid versions of its full-size SUVs (Chevrolet Tahoe and GMC Yukon), GM will, for the 2008 model year, bring back hybrid versions of its full-size pickups, the Silverado and Sierra, which share platforms with those models.
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