By Tony Whitney
I have often reviewed specific auto industry market segments with the aim of providing a concise “shopping guide” for people out to buy a certain class of new vehicle. Sometimes, a new segment altogether develops and that’s what’s happened with hybrid vehicles.
Not that long ago, a review of available hybrids wouldn’t have taken up too much space, but for the 2005 and 2006 model years, the list of products you can buy has lengthened remarkably – demonstrating that these amazingly thrifty gasoline/electric vehicles are now becoming a part of the automotive mainstream.
Toyota and Honda have certainly led the hybrid pack, but there’s no reason to doubt that rival automakers will soon catch up. It’s a fast-changing field with innovations coming along almost by the month. Increasingly, automakers are bringing hybrid technology to products once the sole domain of conventional gasoline engine power.
2005 Toyota Prius
Toyota already has a second-generation Prius on the market – this time, a practical hatchback design with very futuristic looks. Toyota’s hybrid system is interesting in that vehicles using it can run on either gasoline or electric power. In other words, there are times when the vehicle is running solely on the electric motor or motors. Most rival hybrids do not operate at any time on electricity alone – their gasoline motors are always running. This doesn’t make them any less effective in their economical use of fuel – it’s simply a different approach by design departments with alternative ideas.
Toyota also offers two SUVs – the Lexus RX 400h and the Toyota Highlander Hybrid. Since Lexus is Toyota’s luxury division, the new hybrid bearing this prestige nameplate represents a breakthrough. No automaker has yet come up with a luxury hybrid, though most industry observers agree that we’ll see more action in the upscale segment with this type of motive power. Even the rich are showing concern about fuel prices and it’s worth remembering that there are environmental benefits added to the fuel economy you get with hybrid power. Harmful emissions (at least, those that remain with today’s ultra-clean gasoline powerplants) are reduced too.
For people who don’t necessarily want to buy a luxury hybrid SUV, Toyota is offering its less expensive Highlander with gasoline/electric power. The Highlander is very similar to its posh Lexus RX cousin, so it has much of the same refinement.
Honda’s little Insight has been awarded the title “Canada’s Most Economical Car” many times now and was very much a hybrid pioneer. Purpose-built, the Insight is of sporty design with two seats and a minimum of cargo space. Technically, it’s a very advanced vehicle and certainly, visits to your local gas station will be quite rare with the Insight.
In expanding its range of hybrid vehicles, Honda decided to adapt two existing products – both of them serious bestsellers. You can get the small four-door Civic sedan or the larger Accord sedan with hybrid technology. The Accord is quite large and roomy, yet offers economy usually associated with much smaller cars. It has 15 more horsepower than standard V6 Accords. Far from losing power with the hybrid, you actually make gains.
Ford offers the only compact SUV with hybrid power in its current Escape model, a strong seller in an increasingly competitive segment. As with Toyota’s hybrid technology, the Escape will run on electricity, gasoline or both. It’s a roomy little SUV with more passenger and cargo space than its exterior looks might indicate. Since more than 40 per cent of all SUVs sold in Canada are compacts, it would be no surprise to see other automakers coming up with Escape Hybrid rivals sooner or later.
General Motors took an interesting approach to the challenge of hybrids. Instead of getting involved in a “fuel economy war” with other manufacturers at the entry-level end of the market with, for example, a hybrid Chevrolet Cobalt – it decided to apply hybrid technology to vehicles that most needed better fuel economy and lower emissions.
As a result of this decision, GM’s first production hybrids are the Chevrolet Silverado and GMC Sierra full-size pickup trucks. These trucks use electric motors to provide a power boost where needed, cutting fuel consumption at critical points. As with other hybrids, the engine will shut down altogether after a few seconds at a stoplight or during a similar pause in forward motion. The engine starts again with the first tap on the accelerator pedal. If these two trucks are a success, it seems only a matter of time before we see hybrid versions of the GMC Yukon and Chevrolet Suburban SUVs.
How long it will be before the number of available hybrids in Canada reaches double figures is anybody’s guess, but I’d hazard a bet that another two model years will see at least 12 or 14 on the market. Some analysts are forecasting as many as 20 by the end of the decade and many believe that to be a very conservative estimate.