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PRI's Environmental News Magazine

Hybrid Car Roll-out

Air Date: Week of January 10, 2003

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Leading car manufacturers announced a flurry of new fuel-efficient vehicles recently at the North American International Auto Show in Detroit. Among these were a handful of SUV hybrids. Host Steve Curwood talks with Paul Eisenstein, publisher of thecarconnection.com, about how these new models will play in the showroom.

Transcript

CURWOOD: As Anna noted, the Bush administration has announced an increase in fuel economy standards for pickup trucks and SUVs, starting in the year 2005. Some say the one-and-a-half mile per gallon increase is too small and that the industry has the technology to do better. And there’s some evidence that they can. Recently, major carmakers rolled out a number of fuel-efficient SUV hybrids at the North American International Auto Show in Detroit. Paul Eisenstein, publisher of thecarconnection.com, says these new models could be coming soon to a showroom near you.

EISENSTEIN: Ford has an Escape hybrid. Now, the Escape is what some people like to call “cute ute”. It’s a car-based crossover sport utility vehicle. This vehicle, which will be out for the ’04 model year, will have a four-cylinder engine and an electric-assisted powertrain. And that will get about, oh, I think they’re talking 40 miles a gallon right now. So you will get better than four-cylinder mileage but six-cylinder performance because this vehicle’s electric system is designed essentially to work as, what you might call, an electric super charger.

General Motors will be coming up with an electric assisted Silverado and Sierra pickup and they are talking about putting hybrid electric systems on some of their SUVs, including the Saturn Vue and possibly a few others.

CURWOOD: Tell me about Toyota. They pioneered bringing the hybrid to market along with Honda. What’s their next move?

EISENSTEIN: Well, one of the most interesting things is the new hybrid RX330. This is actually put out by Toyota’s upscale division, Lexus. This will be a very advanced system, even more advanced than the system in the Toyota Prius, which is probably the most sophisticated hybrid out there right now. It can operate in purely gasoline mode, purely electric mode, or as a hybrid. So, in a sense, Toyota is giving you an electric vehicle for around-town usage, and that’s pretty significant because in that mode it is a true zero-emission vehicle. But you don’t have to plug it in. You don’t have to worry about limited range. You don't have to worry about recharging time.

What’s really interesting is that they are putting it into the luxury segment. Those buyers are the ones who are already paying a fairly hefty premium for their vehicle and they’re probably the ones who could conceivably afford the penalty that a hybrid vehicle brings in terms of cost, as long as they have a bent towards more eco-friendly automobiles.

CURWOOD: Which car manufacturers are lagging behind this move towards the hybrid?

EISENSTEIN: Well, the domestic makers-- Ford, GM, Chrysler-- were really dragging their feet. They had talked about a whole bunch of hybrids, slipped back a little bit. Ford, for example, has scrubbed a plan to put a hybrid powertrain into its Explorer. Chrysler had plans to do a Durango. It’s pulled that and will only do one small truck version-- one truck version but at low volume, I should say.

Now we should point out that not all the Japanese are going into the hybrid direction. Nissan will get there, they say, if they have to. In other words, if the market demands it, they’ll jump in, but they’re being very, very slow to market with their own hybrids.

CURWOOD: What do you see as the future of the SUV?

EISENSTEIN: I think that we are probably seeing the peak of the full-size SUV, the big rigs like the Lincoln Navigator. The huge market will be for more car-like SUVs or crossover vehicles…vehicles that will fill the niche, if you will, between the traditional station wagon and the more traditional SUV.

The good part about that is that these vehicles tend to be lighter. They handle better. They’re less likely to have rollover problems. They also get significantly better fuel economy. So, I think that this is probably a trend that people who don’t like the SUVs should at least be happier for.

CURWOOD: Paul Eisenstein is a frequent NPR contributor and publisher of thecarconnection.com. Thanks for speaking with me today.

EISENSTEIN: Good to be with you.

[MUSIC: Ikarus “Touch the Sun” Touch the Sun, Earthtone Records (2001)]

 

 

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