Ford Expects Higher Hybrid Sales in 2009

By dancurranjr On December 31st, 2009

Ford Motor Co. said today that it is on track to sell more hybrid vehicles in 2009 than it ever has before.

Through November, Ford said has sold nearly 31,000 hybrid vehicles, or 67% more than it sold last year in the United States while total industry sales have declined 11%.

Ford’s hybrid sales increase is primarily driven by the spring introduction Ford Fusion Hybrid midsize car.

Through November, Ford sold 13,998 Fusion hybrids, according to Autodata Corp.

However, Ford still has a long way to go before it catches hybrid market leader Toyota Motor Corp. Through November, Toyota has sold 127,907 Priuses, according to Autodata Corp.

Ford also introduced the Mercury Milan hybrid midsize car earlier this year and sells hybrid versions of its Ford Escape and Mercury Mariner SUVs.


Can a Hybrid Be a Luxury Car?

By dancurranjr On December 30th, 2009

A fuel-efficient gas-electric hybrid luxury car: Not so long ago, that was an automotive oxymoron. Now, it’s a market segment.

The concept of selling high fuel efficiency as a high-end feature is gaining currency in the auto industry, thanks in part to regulatory pressure and to the buzz in certain circles around the Tesla electric roadster and other electric-powered cars.

Mainstream luxury brands are getting on the green bandwagon, betting that a growing slice of wealthy car buyers defines an “advanced” or “premium” car as more than just a potent engine. The latest arrival in the growing flock of hybrid luxury cars is the Lexus HS 250h. I took a weekend test drive in one to see how Toyota Motor Corp. is attacking the challenge of designing a high-technology car that is both ultra-frugal and indulgent at the same time.

It’s not an easy balance to strike.

Other mainstream luxury hybrids on sale in the U.S. are variations on existing models. That approach helps with costs, but it doesn’t yield eye-popping miles-per-gallon figures.

The $87,950 Mercedes-Benz S400 hybrid sedan, for example, is rated at 21 mpg in combined city and highway driving, according to the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency. The 295-horsepower car uses a six-cylinder engine and a “mild hybrid” system to average three miles per gallon better, on the government’s tests, than the eight-cylinder, 382-horsepower Mercedes S550 sedan.

Then there’s the $43,000 Lexus RX450h, a crossover wagon that uses a more-robust hybrid system than the big Benz to achieve an average 29 mpg, compared to 20 mpg for the standard RX 350. Good, but still not enough if you want a very small carbon footprint.
Not Like Any Other Lexus

The HS 250h, however, isn’t like any other Lexus. Toyota says it isn’t just a rebadged Prius, either. Its body architecture is adapted from a European Toyota model called the Avensis. It has a 2.4-liter gasoline engine, larger than the Prius’s 1.8-liter motor. Combined with the boost from its batteries, the car is rated at 187 horsepower, compared to 134 horsepower for the Prius.

Lexus’ strategy for the HS 250h—which starts at $37,845—is to position it as the car of the future, available today. You can buy one with a cruise-control system that uses radar to slow your car when others get in the way, and an optional navigation system you can talk to.

“And on top of all that, it’s a hybrid,” says Brian Bolain, Lexus’ national manager of marketing and lifecycle strategy.

That said, the most impressive feature of the HS 250h’s list of specifications is its 35 miles per gallon EPA rating for combined city and highway driving.

I drove a Lexus HS 250h (and yes, all those H’s seem redundant) that I borrowed from Toyota from Washington, D.C., through eastern Pennsylvania and into the hilly country of New York state. From my first encounter with this car until I sent it back to the Lexus press fleet, I struggled with mixed feelings.

The HS 250h’s exterior styling plays it very safe, especially in contrast to the wedgy, angular profile of the new 2010 Prius. The interior is dominated by a prominent peninsula that pushes from the center of the dashboard into the space between the driver and passenger seats.

My test car had the optional navigation-system package, priced at $2,125, which also includes satellite radio. The center console was dominated by a joystick-style controller that operated the map functions. I never quite got the hang of the joystick, and a real buyer would expect—and should demand—a tutorial in how to get the most from the system.

The map did come in handy, however, when it alerted us to a huge traffic jam on our route home, and allowed us to bushwhack around the trouble. (Models without the navigation system don’t have the joystick.)

The Lexus HS has some features and behaviors that take a bit of getting used to if you aren’t already a hybrid driver. The car starts with the push of a large button on the dashboard, and can move out of a parking space on electric power. You might hear the gasoline engine come to life right away, or you might not.

The car has a continuously variable transmission, so there’s no gear shifting. “The transmission may feel different,” cautions the owner’s manual. The transmission does offer settings that will help slow the car when descending a steep hill.

The car’s performance in normal highway driving is conventional, except when you slow down and brake. That’s when I heard the whirring and whooshing sounds associated with the car’s technology, which captures braking energy and uses it to recharge the battery pack. Most luxury cars strive for silence. The Lexus HS makes noises.

My test car also had a $3,900 “technology” package that included a feature I used a lot during my trip: a radar-enabled cruise-control system that allowed me to set a speed, and then turn over to the car the chore of adjusting speed to the traffic. If I got stuck behind a slowpoke, the Lexus slowed down to prevent me from tailgating.

The Lexus HS 250h is a pleasant cruiser on freeways, but it’s not much fun on twisting, hilly roads. The car labored up steep grades in the hilly country around the Delaware River in Pennsylvania and New York. It’s not a cornering machine.

We traveled relatively light—a good thing, because thanks to the battery pack, the Lexus HS has just 12.1 cubic feet of trunk space, compared to 14.7 cubic feet for the Lexus ES 350 sedan and 13 cubic feet for the Lexus IS sedan.

The Lexus HS did deliver on mileage. I averaged 34.8 miles per gallon over 293 miles of driving, and boosted my mileage close to 40 mpg during stretches of the drive, according to the trip computer.
A Steep Sticker Price

The question some prospective Lexus HS buyers may ask is this: If you want a high-mileage hybrid, why buy a car that isn’t as fuel-efficient as a Toyota Prius, and costs $14,000 to $15,000 more? My loaded test car had a sticker price of $44,967, although most HS 250h cars will go out the door for under $40,000, Mr. Bolain says. The Prius starts at $23,370 and gets 50 mpg in city and highway driving.

Gas-electric hybrids account for just under 2% of the total car market, and luxury-brand hybrids are a sliver of that. The Lexus HS offers more of what environmentally conscious consumers want from an advanced-technology vehicle, and Mr. Bolain says there will likely be more Lexus models that offer the HS 250h’s brand of technology.

But more than once while winding up hill and down dale in the Lexus HS, I wished I had one of those peppy, high-mileage four-cylinder diesel BMWs or Audis that Europeans get, and we don’t. Does that make me a bad guy?

SOURCE: Wall Street Journal

World’s First Hybrid Motorcycle Revealed: 280 mpg, 40 mph Top Speed, $850

By dancurranjr On December 29th, 2009

Between kleptomaniacs, zippy $900 Hondas, and VW’s unexpected Suzuki takeover, India has earned more than its usual share of two-wheeled headlines of late. And here’s another to add to the mix: Bangalore’s Eko Vehicles has unveiled what they’re claiming will be the world’s first hybrid motorcycle.

The Eko ET-120 (which is more of a scooter than a motocycle, really) runs on a 70cc gasoline-powered engine that works in conjunction with a battery system to produce the power and torque of a 120cc powerplant. The gas engine yields 100 mpg, while the hybrid system should produce a combined total of 280 mpg. Emissions are claimed to be reduced three-fold. And best of all, retail price is expected to be around $850 in India*.

While it’s easy to pooh pooh this ungainly looking ride for its Toyota Prius-like aspirations, considering its potential for smog reduction in places like India (or heck, even here in the States), I’m predicting the ET-120 might be one of the more significant (and controversial) two-wheeled offerings we’ll see in 2010.


Sport Utility Vehicles – Hybrid vs. Diesel SUVs

By dancurranjr On December 28th, 2009

As more diesel and hybrid vehicles enter the market, drivers increasingly want to know which is better. This is an especially big question for sport-utility fans who feel they could easily justify owning one of the large vehicles if only it could match the fuel economy of a car.

Of the diesel and hybrid SUVs I have driven – there are only a dozen or so available — the Toyota Highlander Hybrid Limited and Volkswagen Touareg TDI come closest to combining midsize-car-like fuel economy with the size and cargo capacity that make SUVs appealing. Most other models are either too small to give drivers the high-riding sense of command they seek, or don’t come close to having decent fuel economy.

The Highlander and Touareg are well matched in price, power and practicality, and are about the same size. But the $41,020 Highlander runs on hybrid technology and the $42,800 Toureg on a diesel engine. The Highlander also offers a third-row seat the Touareg lacks, but it is too small for convenient regular use.

Each has a relatively small six-cylinder engine that still manages to power a large vehicle competently. The Touareg’s engine is typical of most diesels — they are generally good at getting a vehicle moving from a stop, and have more power at low speeds than gasoline engines of similar size. Diesels don’t have as much high-speed horsepower, but their low-speed muscle, or torque, is a better fit for the way most people drive.

The Highlander’s hybrid drive system uses an electric motor to provide similar torque that assists the gasoline engine under hard acceleration. The result is that neither gives its driver that frustrating, underpowered feeling.

On paper the Highlander seems like the easy winner because its estimated fuel economy is 27 miles per gallon in city driving and 25 mpg on the highway, compared with the Touareg’s 17 mpg in city driving and 25 mpg on the highway. But in typical everyday driving I found the two to be much closer in performance and fuel consumption. During long highway trips, both clawed their way to 27 miles per gallon, which is remarkable for big, heavy SUVs.

But I found that the hybrid’s urban fuel economy usually fell short of its estimate unless I drove in a slow, plodding way that makes the most of the hybrid’s electric motor. The problem is this driving style annoys other motorists, especially those caught behind you.

The Touareg diesel usually performed a bit better in the city than its estimate suggested, though it never came close to matching the hybrid in pure stop-and-go city driving. The Highlander’s ability to run on its electric motor alone at lower speeds lets it excel in the slow, choppy driving conditions at which gasoline and diesel engines are least efficient.

In everyday driving, I avoided unnecessarily fast starts and tried to drive smoothly, but did not truly strive for top fuel economy. The result: About 24 miles per gallon overall in both the Highlander and Touareg. However, when I tried a little harder to squeeze extra miles out of each vehicle by obeying speed limits, planning suburban routes to avoid stop-and-go driving and coasting whenever possible, the Highlander began to edge ahead. Both SUVs have trip computers that keep track of average fuel economy, and the Highlander’s seemed to respond more readily to small changes in driving style. If you work hard to hone your driving technique to maximize fuel economy, the Highlander seems to work with you and is therefore more rewarding to drive.

The biggest difference between these vehicles lies in their mechanical feel on the road. Other than using diesel fuel, the Touareg feels conventional. Its engine rumbles steadily and its six-speed automatic transmission shifts with a rhythm that most drivers will find familiar.

The Highlander, however, has a continuously variable transmission that smoothly varies its drive ratios in a way that lets the vehicle’s speed build without the distinct steps of a transmission with conventional gears. The feel is seamless, but less engaging. The engine often sounds like it is laboring, but “CVTs” tend to be more efficient than typical transmissions.

Drivers who are especially fond of SUVs with traditional power plants and familiar mechanical layouts may still prefer the way the Touareg feels on the road and responds more sharply to the throttle, while finding the Highlander a bit off-putting. Still, I got used to the Highlander’s transmission quickly and liked the way it smoothed out its overall ride. I also appreciated that the Highlander weighed several hundred pounds less than the Touareg despite carrying two power systems (electric and gas). Drivers who frequently tow heavy loads will almost surely pick the Volkswagen for its 7,716-pound towing capacity, compared with a rather weak 3,500 for the Toyota.

I would happily drive either vehicle every day. Both run smoothly, handle well and are comfortable for long trips. But the Highlander always felt like Toyota took more time and care in putting the car together. And then there are the numbers — the Environmental Protection Agency’s average fuel cost estimate for the Highlander is $1,542, compared with $2,100 for the Touareg diesel. While such estimates aren’t perfect, they are especially helpful when comparing vehicles. In the end, the Highlander does a better job at mixing the often incompatible elements of SUV size and space with small-car fuel economy.

SOURCE: Wall Street Journal

Tata Nano Hybrid and Hot Rod Coming to Market

By dancurranjr On December 27th, 2009

The world’s cheapest car is about to get greener and sportier.

A hybrid version of the tiny Tata Nano has been confirmed by Ratan Tata, chairman of Tata Motors, according to South Korea’s Maeil Business Newspaper.

The current gasoline-powered Nano — on sale in India since April — is hardly a gas guzzler. Powered by a tiny, 35-horsepower 2-cylinder gas engine, the Nano is capable of approximately 50 miles per gallon. A greener variant of this engine (or the larger 3-cylinder motor planned for export markets) could make the Nano the world’s cheapest hybrid.

Mr. Tata did not elaborate as to when a Nano hybrid might go on sale, or offer specifics regarding the powertrain.

More likely to appear first is a hot-rod version of the Nano — or something close to it. D.C. Design, a car customizer based in Pune, India, is planning to release its modified Nano in early 2010, reports the Business Standard. The transformation comes complete with massive front grill, blistered fenders, alloy wheels and over-sized air intakes. Not since Wayne and Garth cruised Aurora, Ill., in a flamed powder-blue AMC Pacer has there been a more ironic custom car.

“The world’s cheapest car has thrown up a few interesting scenarios,” said Dilip Chhabria, founder of D.C. Design. “Firstly, we think the world’s cheapest car does have a lot of sex appeal – in fact its silhouette of one sweeping arc is quite unparalleled and lends itself to customization.”

During my drive of the Nano earlier this year, I praised the cute tortoise shell-like exterior. In comparison, the D.C. Design model appears to have taken inspiration from Darth Vader’s helmet. The outrageous exterior screams high performance, but the engine offers only a mechanical whimper. Accelerating from 0-60 miles an hour takes approximately 30 seconds — making the Nano 15 seconds slower than the Smart Fortwo, presently the slowest accelerating car sold in the United States.

But according to Mr. Chhabria, Nano customers are looking for design exclusivity on a tight budget. “Because it is so cheap, it has spawned, we think, a whole new segment,” explained Mr. Chhabria. “For a customer spending 80 percent value as a D.C. addition, it still is cheaper than other entry level car — albeit a highly differentiated and exclusive one.”