Hybrids Receive Attention as Consumers Fear Rising Gas Costs

By dancurranjr On May 2nd, 2009

With the air-conditioning blasting, William Harris gunned the engine of the Ford Fusion Hybrid and sped down Camelback Road, breaking abruptly at a stoplight.

If he didn’t know he was wasting fuel, the digital image of a withering green plant on the dashboard made it clear.

The new Fusion reserves a small spot on the digital-gauge readout for a plant that grows when the car is driven efficiently. After Harris’ two-block acceleration test, half the image’s leaves had fallen off.

Hybrid automakers commonly use digital readouts to coach conservation, showing how much power the engine and air-conditioning demand at different speeds and settings. But the Fusion takes possibly the most creative approach yet.

“People can actually change their driving habits by looking at this gauge,” said Praveen Cherian, project manager for Ford Motor Co.

Harris, president and CEO of Science Foundation Arizona, and other local officials got to try out the new Fusion in Phoenix this week as local dealerships offer the cars, starting at $28,000.

Cherian said Harris wouldn’t kill the plant regardless of how much he accelerated between stops or cranked up the air.

“We give you one leaf no matter what you do because you are smart enough to drive a hybrid,” Cherian said, adding that the plant display can be turned off.

gas-prices-1After last summer’s gas-price spike, fuel conservation has become much more important to all drivers, including those that buy large trucks, Ford officials said.

Ford says the car gets an average of 41 miles per gallon of gas in the city, thanks mostly to running on the electric motor up to a speed of 47 mph.

At highway speeds, as the gas engine is used more, the hybrid gets an average of 36 miles per gallon.

After about 10 minutes of stop-and-go driving, including a quick loop on Arizona 51, the car told Harris he had averaged 33.7 mpg.

“I was just trying it out, seeing what it could do,” Harris said. “If I drove it (conservatively) for another 10 minutes, I’d be getting 40 (mpg) easily.”

After the drive, Harris said he liked the way the car handled and switched seamlessly between the electric and gas systems, but for now, he’ll stick to his 2005 Toyota Prius.

Automakers’ recent commitment to making better hybrids is impressive, Harris said.

“I don’t think most people realize how seriously motor companies take these issues,” Harris said.

Ford invited fleet managers, university researchers and people who placed orders for the new Fords to drive the vehicles. Many had questions, including how long the batteries would last and whether Arizona’s heat could kill the battery.

Cherian said the batteries are rated to withstand Arizona’s heat. Some batteries have been running for more than 300,000 miles in taxicabs and are under warranty for 10 years or 150,000 miles.

The hybrid’s 700-mile range on a tank of fuel means travelers could nearly drive from Phoenix to San Diego and back without a refill.

Cherian said Ford and other auto manufacturers are serious about selling large volumes of hybrid and electric vehicles.

Ford will release an all-electric vehicle in 2010 aimed at fleets and a consumer model the following year, he said.

“We can’t just sell 20,000 hybrids and call it a day,” he said. “That is not making an impact.”

Some Ford fans couldn’t wait for the car to hit the lots before buying one.

“I’m a real Fordophile,” said Bob Stringham of Gilbert, who retired a year ago from Honeywell, and is waiting for delivery of the 2010 Fusion he bought for his wife.

“You know the gas prices are going back up,” he said.

Stringham bought the car early enough to take advantage of a $3,400 federal tax credit. That has been reduced to $1,700 for people who buy the Fusion before Sept. 30.

He drives a Mercury Mariner Hybrid now and is averaging 37 mpg, he said.

“I don’t do any weird hypermiling or anything like that,” he said, referring to the practice of coasting in neutral and light braking some drivers use to save fuel.

“As a mechanical engineer, this just makes so much sense.”

SOURCE: Arizona Republic

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