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."

Continued on Next Page >>




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