Hybrids Staking Claim in Auto Industry

By dancurranjr On April 5th, 2009

ford-fusionDeclining gas prices and a national economic downturn have dampened U.S. sales of hybrid vehicles, but Ford Motor Co. officials believe the 2010 Fusion Hybrid will compete favorably with the competition.

The first-generation Fusion came out in 2005, and the new version offers such additions as a six-speed transmission. It will be available at dealerships in the next week or two.

“There were a lot of lessons learned, and we got a lot of customer feedback,” said Thomas Gee, manager for hybrid controls and strategy implementation for Dearborn, Mich.-based Ford. “We rolled all that into the second-generation system.”

Gee and Mark Graul of Arena Strategy Group left the Greater St. Paul and Minneapolis International Auto Show on Monday for a tour of Wisconsin in a 2010 Fusion. They stopped in Eau Claire on Tuesday.

Much of the customer feedback, Gee said, centered on the instrument panel. Ford’s answer is the SmartGauge, which “coaches” drivers to get the best possible gas mileage. It has a display that adds leaves to a forest graphic when energy-efficiency is optimal and takes them away when it’s not.

The 2010 Ford Fusion Hybrid gets about 41 miles per gallon in the city and 38 on the highway. It’s more efficient in town because the electricity is regenerated through braking and other actions.

Ford is competing in a category that’s had mixed results lately. Hybrid sales were off by 10 percent in 2008, and February sales of the Toyota Prius and Honda’s Civic Hybrid were down 30.8 and 21.5 percent, respectively, from year-ago figures.

Aside from low gas prices and the increasing mileage capabilities of regular models, hybrid sales also are affected by their cost. The 2010 Ford Fusion Hybrid has a price tag of about $28,000.

“There’s still a premium for buying a car with a hybrid system,” said Jack Nerad, editorial director for Kelley Blue Book. “The engineering is more complicated, there’s more components and the battery packs themselves are quite expensive.

“And in terms of interior space, accommodations and power, you will have to pay more for a hybrid to get comparable performance in all of those areas.”

Nevertheless, hybrids have outperformed other categories of vehicles. Although hybrid sales were down 29 percent in February from the year-ago period, the car market as a whole was down 40 percent. There also are tax credits available that range from $1,550 to about $3,000.

Many consumers are driven to buy a hybrid by a desire to reduce their carbon footprint; others are driven by economics.

“It’s a little of both,” Gee said. “By buying a hybrid, they’re making a statement by doing the right thing for the environment and for the country to reduce our dependence on foreign oil. They just feel good about it.”

SOURCE: Leader Telegram

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