Brightest Days Ahead for Hybrid Gas-Electric Cars

Lincoln Hybrid Gas-Electric Vehicle
Lincoln hybrid gas-electric vehicle.
Infinity M35 Hybrid
Infinity M35 hybrid gas-electric vehicle.
Lincoln Hybrid Gas-Electric Vehicle
Infinity M35 Hybrid

To paraphrase Mark Twain, recent reports of the death of hybrid cars have been greatly exaggerated. 

In the past few months, the reliability and safety of cars that use both a gas engine and an electric motor have been called into question. If you believe the headlines, you’d think that hybrids are running out of gas (and electrons). But a study of product plans from major car makers reveals that hybrids are just getting started. 

The worst of the antihybrid press took place in March, when a San Diego, California, man claimed that his Toyota Prius sped up and couldn’t be stopped. After a harrowing 23 minutes—recounted in detail by major national media outlets—a highway patrolman coached the man to safety by having him simultaneously apply the parking brake and foot brake. Investigations by Toyota, the National Highway Traffic Safety Administration, and even NASA, failed to produce any explanations. No matter. The incident struck fear into the public’s hearts and, along with Toyota’s other safety publicity, undermined the once-spotless reputation of these hybrids as the most reliable and fuel-efficient cars on the road.

Hybrids have also come under attack from the other side of the gas-electric divide. At least one auto reviewer sees hybrids as dead in the water now that a new age of electric cars is upon us. In late April, Warren Brown of The Washington Post wrote, “Hybrids are merely a way-station until we get proper electric cars and infrastructure…. The Prius’s dominance seems to be almost over.” Indeed, fans of pure electric cars have a lot to be happy about these days with the Nissan Leaf, Ford Focus Electric, Coda Electric Sedan, Mitubishi i-MiEV, and other EVs scheduled to arrive this year (see “The EV Revolution,” this issue). But electric devotees eager to dance on the grave of any vehicle with an internal combustion engine might have to wait a bit longer. 

Most forecasters believe that relatively affordable gas-powered engines—especially ones employing strategies like direct injection and turbocharging—will become increasing efficient and will be a long-term winner when it comes to the economics of saving fuel. Of course, these downsized gas engines can be combined with an electric motor and a battery pack to turn them into hybrids—and boost efficiency even more. 

In fact, tougher fuel economy regulations requiring automakers to reach an average of 35.5 mpg by 2016 will practically legislate more hybrids. In the next five years, the number of hybrids—both the ones that can plug in and the ones that can’t—will grow from 25 to perhaps 60 or 70 models. 

What should we expect?

  • Toyota plans to double hybrid production in 2011, and will introduce an entire family of Prius cars in the next few years. Their plans reportedly include a subcompact Prius, a Prius plug-in hybrid, and a hybrid minivan.
  • Ford’s electrification strategy includes the all-electric Ford Focus and Transit Connect, but also the Ford MKZ hybrid (due later this year), a plug-in hybrid Ford Escape, and a pair of next-generation hybrids by 2013. The company is also crossing the pond with a set of hybrids and plug-in hybrids for Europe.
  • Hyundai will introduce its first hybrid, the Sonata hybrid, and says that it’s working on a new hybrid to compete against the Prius.
  • Honda is re-investing and re-engineering its future hybrids in a quest to take the lead on fuel economy. It will introduce the small and sporty CR-Z hybrid coupe this summer, and use the technology on a hybrid minivan and in its Acura luxury division.
  • General Motors is on track to introduce its Chevy Volt, a plug-in hybrid, late this year and will follow with a plug-in hybrid crossover SUV. GM executives continue to assert that mild hybrid technology is a critical strategy for making future hybrids affordable.
  • It’s rumored that Mercedes is planning to convert its entire S-class to hybrid technology in the next few years.
  • Nissan stands alone in its belief that pure electric cars are a single-point solution. Yet, its luxury division unveiled the Infiniti M35, its first hybrid, at the 2010 Geneva Motor Show. UK’s Autocar reported that all Infinitis will be hybrids within 10 years.

Connect these dots to get a hybrid-rich picture of the road in 2013 or 2014: a 50-mpg Prius next to a 50-mpg Honda, next to a 50-mpg Hyundai, next to a 90-mpg Prius plug-in hybrid, next to the plug-in hybrid Chevy Volt…

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