Hybrid Car Forecast for Early 2006

Comments from the Union of Concerned Scientists and HybridCenter.org on Latest Automaker Developments

This should be a fascinating year for hybrids in the compact and midsize car segments, and a great year for consumer choice. The new American-built 2007 Toyota Camry Hybrid is the first midsize hybrid sedan to be built in the U.S., while the revamped and substantially improved 2006 Honda Civic Hybrid has already been well received since its unveiling this past fall. Both of these vehicles are delivering what hybrid consumers are asking for — solid performance along with better gas mileage, lower smog-forming and fewer global warming emissions. The Nissan Altima Hybrid is another excellent vehicle, but will only be sold in California. The Hyundai Accent Hybrid, having debuted last year at the Guangzhou, China, auto show, is due in the U.S. by year’s end, and it looks like it may give consumers a 44 percent boost in fuel economy for significantly less than $20,000 — and that’s before the federal tax credit. Midsize Hybrids Should Follow the Leader The second-generation Prius, which debuted in 2004, showed that you can have it all — more room, low emissions, and great gas mileage. The natural follow-up would have been to build on what makes the Prius so successful while providing luxury features for their upscale buyers. Unfortunately, Honda and Toyota seem to have fallen back on the outdated axiom that a luxury vehicle needs to double as a muscle car. Honda’s four-cylinder Accord is more popular than its V6 version, yet the company decided to use the more inefficient six-cylinder engine as the foundation for the Accord Hybrid, which offers only a 16 percent fuel economy boost over the conventional four-cylinder Accord. Likewise, the Lexus GS luxury sedan is expected to offer only about 27-28 mpg. Using the best hybrid technology primarily to boost power is not what consumers expect out of hybrids. Hybrid SUVs Part Inspiration, Part Marketing Gimmick The Ford Escape and Mercury Mariner Hybrids, and Ford’s intentions to significantly boost its production, have finally delivered well-performing SUVs with significantly improved gas mileage. There was a time when GM looked to be following Ford’s footsteps with a full hybrid Vue SUV, but GM scrapped those plans in favor of a limited production “Green Line” Vue, which will only net a 20 percent fuel economy improvement (its original hybrid Vue would have offered an estimated 50 percent improvement). While this vehicle does include impressive conventional improvements, as a hybrid, it is hollow. This is because it fails to employ the high-voltage electronics and meaningful battery capacity that are characteristic of true hybrids. Even in its current form, however, the Green Line Vue could have represented something transformational for Saturn, and for GM itself. The Green Line Vue is a tremendous jump in conventional vehicle technology and, had it applied this technology throughout the Vue fleet, GM would have done more to help the environment by selling Green Line Vues than Ford. Impact of New Fuel Economy Labels is Uncertain One wildcard in evaluating different hybrid vehicles is the relationship between EPA fuel economy ratings and real world performance. The EPA recently proposed a series of changes to make fuel economy ratings more accurate. The changes, while not ideal, make good use of already-available data and are a step in the right direction. In the short term, automakers will be permitted to use a modified “fudge-factor” approach, similar to the one they already use, to determine fuel economy ratings. After 2011, automakers will be required to measure fuel economy results from three additional test cycles: cycles that include high-speed and aggressive driving, the use of air conditioning at high temperatures, and cold-weather operation. Once these additional tests are in use it is expected that certain hybrid vehicles will fare better than others, and consumers will be able to make better decisions about choosing a vehicle.

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