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Published: Wednesday, 1/7/2004

SUVs enter hybrid race New vehicles revealed

BY JULIE M. McKINNON
BLADE BUSINESS WRITER
The Lexus RX 400h gets more than 30 mpg and its maker expects to sell 24,000 of the gas-battery powered vehicles. The Lexus RX 400h gets more than 30 mpg and its maker expects to sell 24,000 of the gas-battery powered vehicles.
KING / BLADE Enlarge

DETROIT - They use both gasoline and electricity for power, get better mileage, spew fewer emissions, and soon will be available in a form many Americans favor: sport-utility vehicles.

Hybrid gasoline-electric SUVs will be offered by the Ford, Toyota, and Lexus brands this year or early next, joining car offerings by Toyota and Honda. One of those existing hybrids, the Toyota Prius, was named North American Car of the Year by journalists this week during media previews for Detroit s North American International Auto Show. The show opens to the public Saturday and runs through Jan. 19.

Americans may be even more accepting of hybrid SUVs than cars, and it makes more sense to build hybrid versions of heavier vehicles since they use more gasoline, create more emissions, and can more easily stow necessary battery packs, said Jim Press, executive vice president and chief operating officer of Toyota Motor Sales USA Inc.

Toyota's Highlander hybrid has already reached Toledo, area car dealers have said. Toyota's Highlander hybrid has already reached Toledo, area car dealers have said.
KING / BLADE Enlarge

“SUV drivers feel the need for large vehicles, but usually there s a certain bit of guilt associated with them,” he said soon after Toyota s Lexus brand unveiled the RX 400h. The hybrid SUV gets more than 30 miles to the gallon, a 20 percent improvement over its conventional twin, the RX 330.

Mr. Press added: “It s kind of like eating a chocolate souffle with no calories.”

The automaker is aiming for annual U.S. sales of the RX400h of about 24,000.

Hybrid versions will be offered this year or early next of the Toyota Highlander and the Ford Escape, which last year replaced the Toledo-made Jeep Liberty as the nation s top-selling compact SUV. The Honda brand, meanwhile, will add a V-6 Accord and another not yet identified vehicle this fall to its slate of hybrid models, which includes the Insight and a hybrid Civic.

This year s Cobo Center show also features some alternative-fuel concept vehicles. Mazda, for example, unveiled a hydrogen version of its RX-8 sports car, which has a rotary instead of piston engine that can be powered either by hydrogen or gasoline, and Mercedes-Benz is showing a diesel hybrid, the Vision Grand Sports Tourer.

A wave of hybrid-powered vehicles is to arrive on the American scene in the next few years, with some providing only limited fuel-economy improvements. Some automakers are compromising on the miles-per-gallon averages to provide vehicles more to the liking of the general public, which are bigger than the small Prius. In fact, J.D. Power and Associates predicts that by 2008 two-thirds of hybrid vehicles sold in the United States will be SUVs, pickups, and vans.

Building hybrids is part of a good long-term strategy for automakers, especially since the technology is used in developing fuel cells, one expert said. Part of the reason hybrids are proliferating is the government has stymied diesel alternatives with strict regulations, although a Liberty diesel wisely will be offered this year, said Paul Taylor, chief economist for the National Automobile Dealers Association.

Consumers may be interested in hybrids, but they won t pay an estimated $4,000 to $5,000 more for a hybrid SUV as long as gas is less than $2 a gallon, Mr. Taylor said.

“When they sit down and do the math, many consumers say I m attracted to it, but I m not going to buy it, ” he said.

Yet, Toyota s Mr. Press said, buyers don t think twice about spending on other options. He said the RX 400h and hybrid Highlander will cost more than their conventional twins, but prices have not been released.

Toledo area buyers have started asking about the hybrid Highlander, said Dave Wittenmyer, general manager for Jim White Toyota in Sylvania Township.

The dealership sold about 30 Priuses last year, including at least a dozen in the last two months, he said. Prius buyers typically are 40 or older, are interested in its fuel economy, and like the car s design, he said.

Prius sales numbers would be higher if the dealership got more of the limited-volume model in, Mr. Wittenmyer said. The cars, which are about the size of a Toyota Corolla, start at less than $20,000.



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