Archive for Monday, May 27, 2002

Hybrid cars steer consumers toward cleaner environment

May 27, 2002

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"You missed a spot."

Bonnie laughed, pushed the mower over to where I gestured and kept going. She gave me another "Oh, Dad" look as she made another pass around the back yard.

I closed my eyes again and sunk back into the chaise lounge, wondering if I should stay awake to witness this rare event of my 15-year-old daughter doing yard work.

I heard the mower stop abruptly.

"I'm done I have to get ready to go to Kondja's to study."

I noticed about half the yard still needed mowing.

"Hmmm. What kind of a car did you want?"

She ignored my veiled threat.

"A green convertible," she said, escaping into the house.

Going for the green

My daughter was thinking about color. But her green comment made me think we should look at something a little kinder and gentler for the environment hybrid gasoline-electric cars.

About a year ago, I drove one of the new hybrids, a Toyota Prius that the city of Lawrence bought. At that time, Steve Stewart, the city garage manager, got approval to buy one to test it as a way to save money on city vehicles' gasoline costs.

I called Steve to see how the test went.

"It worked out well enough we have two more," Stewart said. "We put them in service about a month ago."

The two new ones are being used by city environmental inspectors to make their rounds.

Stewart said the new $20,000 Prius hybrids are supposed to get about 50 miles per gallon. The original Prius got about 40 mpg. But Toyota recently did some upgrades that are supposed to improve its mileage, he said.

Honda's Civic

Stewart talked about some of the other hybrids he's investigated.

He's driven one of Honda's new Civic hybrids, which came out in April. "Nice" is how he described the four-door sedan.

The Civic hybrid (http://civichybrid.honda.com) uses a 1.3-liter engine for most driving, which is boosted for acceleration, when needed, by an electric motor. The motor is powered by a battery pack that is charged while the car is running and braking.

Honda claims it gets 46 mpg in the city and 51 mpg on the highway. Its cost is estimated between $19,550 and $20,550.

Focus on fuel cells

Ford is planning to take its popular Focus model, a four-door sedan, down the zero emission road. A prototype Focus fuel cell model has been built and more are scheduled to hit the showrooms in 2004.

Fuel cells use stored chemicals, such as hydrogen, to generate electricity to power a motor. The Focus FCV (fuel cell vehicle) will get as much as 80 mph from its 90-horsepower engine. And it will run up to 100 miles without needing more compressed hydrogen. (See it at www.thinkmobility.com/tech_gallery.asp?prodCode=FOCUSFCV&TID;=579193.)

Pulling a load

When hybrids first came out, everybody was skeptical they would have enough power and versatility to match conventional gasoline-powered vehicles.

The jury is still out on the pickups, especially how well they'll be able to haul a load or pull a trailer, Stewart said.

Ford plans to bring out its SUV hybrid, the Escape HEV (Hybrid Electric Vehicle), in the fall of 2003 (www.hybridford.com/index.asp).

The Escape HEV, expected to cost under $21,000, is supposed to get 40 mpg in the city and 29 mpg on the highway.

The four-wheel drive vehicle also is supposed to meet the strict California emissions standard of "Super Ultra Low Emission." And it's supposed to be capable of towing 1,000 pounds.

It runs on a four-cylinder engine, boosted when needed by an electric motor. A 300-volt, nickel-metal-hydride battery is charged up during braking and normal cruising to provide power for the motor.

General Motors also is joining the green parade, and plans to bring out a new hybrid pickup in late 2003 or 2004.

"They're seeing the potential," Stewart said.

GM is building what it calls its ParadiGM system, a power train that uses a V-6 engine or four-cylinder inline engine, supplemented with two electric motors. The electric motors run at low speeds and the gasoline engines take over at higher speeds. (See more at www.gm.com/company/environment/gm_and_the_env/releases/paradigm_game_changing_010401.html.)

Getting priorities straight

"So, Julie, what kind of a car do you want?" I asked my other 15-year-old daughter as she entered the kitchen. As in most things, the twins have already told me they absolutely cannot share a car.

There was no hesitation "An F-150. A red one."

I remembered she'd been pointing out Ford's muscle pickup trucks to me since she started driving a week ago.

"What do you think about a hybrid?" I asked.

I got a long puzzled stare. Then she walked away.

I translated that to mean something like "don't you dare ruin my dream with your geeky ideas."

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