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First Hybrid SUV Debuts in "Nightmare" Road Test

Brian Handwerk in New York
for National Geographic News
April 9, 2004
 
The United States' growing number of sport-utility vehicle buyers will
soon see a cleaner, greener choice on showroom floors. New gas-
electric hybrid vehicles are arriving just in time to combat rising
gasoline prices.

The Ford Escape Hybrid, unveiled this week here at the New York International Automobile Show, averaged over 38 miles per gallon (61 kilometers per gallon) in a nonstop, 37-hour test drive around New York City. The Escape Hybrid's chief engineer, Mary Ann Wright, dubbed the drive a "commuter's nightmare."


A 15-gallon (57-liter) gas tank and 330-volt electric battery powered 37 consecutive hours of driving in the urban congestion of Manhattan—until the gas ran out. The final tally was 576 miles (927 kilometers). That's a 75 percent improvement over the 20-miles per gallon (32 kilometers per gallon) that the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency says the conventional V-6 Escape gets.

The Escape Hybrid's late summer release will mark the first production hybrid SUV. Hybrids are able to run by alternating their use of gasoline and electric power or by using the two in tandem. The Escape one of some 30 hybrids scheduled to hit the market by 2008.

This fall Lexus introduces the RX400h, billed as the world's first luxury hybrid. Later in 2004 Honda will unveil a hybrid version of its highly popular Accord car. Other 2004 hybrid releases include trucks from Chevrolet, Dodge and GMC, and Toyota.

All these vehicles promise fewer trips to the pump and lower harmful emissions than their conventional counterparts.

Hybrid Demand on the Rise

The J.D. Power and Associates marketing-information services firm reported Tuesday that it expects consumers to look increasingly to hybrid technology for relief from high pump prices. Their announcement is based in the results of their 2004 Consumer Acceptance of Alternative Powertrains Study.

"If the average price drivers are paying for gasoline continues to steadily climb, then the clean diesel engines and hybrid electric powertrains that automakers are bringing to the market could be much more successful than skeptics, and even some proponents, expect," said Walter McManus, the firm's executive director of global forecasting.

"Clean" diesel engines remain at least two years away from market, but hybrids will soon be arriving in force. Diesel engines offer greater fuel efficiency than conventional gasoline engines but generally emit more pollution.

Jon Coifman, a spokesman for the Natural Resources Defense Council (NRDC), said that the environmental-advocacy group sees growing interest in and awareness of hybrid autos. He noted that demand for the market's existing Honda and Toyota models sometimes exceeds supply.

"It's a tremendous technology that is fundamentally changing the way that we debate fuel economy and performance in this country," Coifman said. "When they hit the streets a few years ago, the debate moved from 'We can't improve the fuel efficiency for these cars, trucks and SUVs' to 'We won't improve [fuel efficiency].' So Ford rolling out the hybrid Escape is a positive development."

"It's good news that a U.S. manufacturer has product on the road," Coifman continued. "This is technology we should be exporting, not importing. Unfortunately there has been too much foot-dragging from some of the management in Detroit who've preferred to put their lobbyists to work [trying to thwart fuel efficiency standards] instead of letting their talented engineers step up to the plate."

Performance and Efficiency

Toyota's Prius pioneered hybrid technology in 1997. Other hybrid vehicles vary in design but share a similar concept.

The Escape Hybrid combines a conventional gasoline engine with an electric motor, powered by a 330-volt nickel-metal battery pack.

When driving, the system chooses which power source to utlize—sometimes choosing both when extra power is needed. Unlike some hybrid systems, the Escape can run solely on electric power at speeds up to 25 miles (40 kilometers) an hour.

"[The engine] always looks for the optimal point to maximize fuel economy," Ford's Wright said. "That's what a hybrid is all about."

While kicking the tires and climbing behind the wheel on New York's Central Park South, the Escape Hybrid looked and felt just like its conventional cousin—except for promotional "hybrid" stickers affixed for the auto-show crowd. (Both Escapes are in fact produced on the same assembly line.)

At first glance the dash appeared normal as well, though a unique gauge monitors battery levels, and the tachometer features a below-zero setting—indicating the electric-only "green mode."

During a midtown-Manhattan test drive, the Escape Hybrid displayed the same performance you'd expect from a conventional SUV, yet ran much of the time in electric-only mode. The gasoline engine smoothly kicked in when necessary. Under electric power, the vehicle's near total silence prompted surprised looks from even New York's jaded pedestrians.

The gasoline engine recharges the battery whenever the gas engine is running. The battery also stores power generated whenever the brakes are used—power that would normally be lost as heat. Despite misconceptions, hybrids never have to be plugged in to any type of electricity source.

Hybrid vehicles also dramatically reduce polluting emissions, a key step towards combating greenhouse gasses and addressing global climate change.

Hybrid: Not a Vehicle, But a Technology

Despite their existing benefits, the future success of hybrids likely depends on giving mainstream consumers the types of vehicles they already drive. The hybrid market share is expected to be only about 1 percent in 2005, but the NRDC's Coifman notes that the release of a variety of hybrid vehicle styles could raise awareness and demand ever higher.

"More people will understand that a hybrid is not a unique vehicle but a technological option that will be available in a whole range of vehicle choices," Coifman said.

To the dismay of many environmentalists, SUVs and trucks remain the United States' most popular vehicle choice.

J.D. Power and Associates reported this week that, through March of 2004, light-duty trucks, including SUVs, comprised 54 percent of automotive sales—up nearly 10 percent from 2003.

Those numbers show why the development of hybrid SUVs may be such an important step.

"We recognize that individuals and families have all kinds of needs and they want more variety and choice," Coifman said. "We certainly encourage people to choose the most efficient vehicle that suits their needs. We also advocate that every vehicle use the most efficient fuel technology possible, and that's not the case today. So it's good for consumers to see this hybrid technology spreading though the market."

Ford's Wright called the Escape Hybrid a "guilt-free car choice." "You have improved fuel economy, reduced emissions, the same 4WD performance, and plenty of room for people, dogs, and gear," she said. "There are no compromises."

Some potential hybrid consumers have balked at sticker prices, unsure how much the technology will cost. Ford has not yet released pricing for the SUV, but J.D. Power and Associates reported this week that the premium for a hybrid vehicle averages approximately U.S. $4,000 over the standard-model price.

Such purchase costs could take years to recoup, even with significant fuel savings. Yet hybrid vehicles offer other benefits, including buyer tax breaks, single-driver use of high-occupancy-vehicle (HOV) lanes in some commuter markets, and a cleaner green conscience.

"Hybrids are here to stay. We're just starting to see their potential," Wright said. "In parallel, we're very committed to [hydrogen] fuel cell vehicles. But the reality is that they are down the road in terms of technology and also in terms of infrastructure. After all, I've yet to see a hydrogen filling station. But hybrid technology is here now—and we expect to sell every one of these vehicles that we can make."

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