First Hybrid SUV Debuts in "Nightmare" Road Test

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"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."

For more car and fuel news, scroll down for related stories and links.

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