Hybrid Vehicles Making Greater Inroads

By dancurranjr On November 3rd, 2009

new-insightIt’s been a decade since an odd-looking little car called the Honda Insight hit the U.S. market and Americans discovered the smug, fuel-saving joy of owning a hybrid vehicle.

Now, gas-electric hybrids seem to be everywhere.

More than a dozen hybrid models are available in the U.S. today, with options spanning nearly every taste and budget, from gas-sipping small cars like the Toyota Prius to big SUVs like the Chevy Tahoe that blend right in on Texas roads.

And even though hybrid sales have fallen with the recession and lower gasoline prices, the category continues to attract buyers.

“Hybrids were once seen as a curiosity but have now become mainstream,” said Ailis Aaron Wolf, spokesperson for hybridownersofamerica.org.

Hybrids are likely to make still bigger inroads in coming years as automakers strive to meet tougher fuel-economy standards recently introduced by the Obama administration. The rules call for fleets to achieve an average 35.5 mpg by 2016.

Motorists are demanding cleaner and more fuel-efficient transportation in the wake of $4 gasoline last year and widening climate-change concerns.

Hybrid sales will account for about 2.8 percent of U.S. auto sales this year, growing to 6.7 percent in 2012, predicts J.D. Power and Associates in Troy, Mich.

The Toyota Prius sedan continues to be the best-seller, accounting for 50 percent of U.S. hybrid sales. A newly redesigned Honda Insight is seen as an emerging challenger while hybrid models by Ford, Lexus and Saturn are also finding takers.

Most hybrids — which combine a gasoline-fed internal combustion engine with an electric motor — tout better fuel economy and reduced tailpipe emissions when compared with models powered solely by internal combustion engines. The models are especially recommended for stop-and-start city driving, in which the electric motor takes over, recharged with every tap of the brake.

Critics contend that automakers often overstate gas-mileage claims and that hybrids’ higher sticker prices make sense only if gasoline prices are much higher than they are today.

But Aaron Wolf said the growth of hybrid technology over the past 10 years is silencing detractors. It’s also providing a bridge to electric cars for the masses.

Next year, hybrids are expected to take a leap closer to that goal with the release of the Chevy Volt, which General Motors says can achieve 230 miles per gallon. It pairs a gas engine with lithium-ion batteries that can be recharged by plugging into a wall socket at home. The Nissan Leaf, a fully electric and zero-emission model, is expected later.

Meantime, Americans will see a variety of more traditional hybrid vehicles offered in coming years from the likes of Hyundai, Mercedes, BMW, Ford and Toyota.


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