These days, most car buyers are giving at least some thought to purchasing a hybrid car or hybrid SUV. Who doesn't want to save money on gas and help ease the potential for environmental calamity at the same time?
What are commonly known as hybrid vehicles can actually be very confusing in today's market. The year 2007 marks the end of the simple days when a gas-and-electric "hybrid" engine, such as in the Toyota Prius, ruled the roads and even the red carpet. There were 15 hybrid vehicles available to U.S. consumers in 2007, including newcomers such as the Chevy Silverado, GMC Sierra, Dodge Ram, Nissan Altima, Saturn VUE Green Line and Saturn Aura Green Line.
The year 2008 and beyond heralds a new wave in fuel-efficient and environmentally-friendly vehicles. More typical gas-electric hybrid motors will be available on an ever-increasing number of current models, including the Cadillac Escalade, which made a surprising debut at this year's Oscars with actress Kate Hudson behind the wheel.
Many other car companies are jumping into the hybrid car game in 2008, debuting gas-electric models such as Ford Fusion, Audi Q7, Toyota Sienna, Hyundai Accent, Kia Rio, Mercury Milan and Porsche Cayenne.
A more electric-use hybrid car is also being marketed at Mazda. The Mazda Tribute, a CUV, is being billed as a "hybrid electric vehicle" (or HEV) that runs on pure electric power up to about 25 mph. Set for a 2008 release, the Mazda Tribute HEV gets an estimated 33 mpg city (29 mpg highway) for its 2.3 liter, 4-cylinder, 133-hp engine.
Don't Forget Diesel and Fuel Cell
Diesel cars and diesel trucks are making a comeback too. As a somewhat cheaper and cleaner fuel, diesel is showing up in 2008 on Ford's lineup of its Super Duty trucks and even on the luxurious Jeep Grand Cherokee Diesel. And in the next two years, Honda says it will be bringing an entire line of "clean" diesel cars to the U.S. market.
Mercedes-Benz is finally delivering cars in 2008 based on its award-winning BLUETEC technology. Using diesel gas and direct injection, Mercedes-Benz's BLUETEC cars such as the 2008 E320 meet some of the world's most stringent emissions regulations. Saving the planet and driving in luxury never felt so good, right?
Fuel cell cars will finally be for sale in 2008 as Honda is gearing up to sell its sleek and compact Honda FCX. Other up-and-coming fuel cell cars are the Ford Focus, Explorer and Edge. Although these three cars are being driven as demonstration models in several cities, Ford has not yet announced a release date for these hydrogen-based vehicles.
Getting into a Hybrid
With the Honda Insight gone from the market, there are really no entry-level hybrid vehicles in the $10, 000 to $20,000 category. Hybrid car buyers, therefore, can look to these three models with an MSRP price of about $22,000: Toyota Prius, Honda Civic Hybrid and Saturn Aura Green Line. Here are some road test notes for interested buyers.
Toyota Prius: My No. 1 pick for an overall excellent hybrid car is still the Toyota Prius. Although the engine whines rather noisily and the exterior styling is a bit goofy, the Toyota Prius is still fun to drive, comfortable, reliable and has a generous list of way-cool technology for the low price.
Honda Civic Hybrid: The well-loved Honda Civic comes in a rather zippy hybrid version. The Honda Civic Hybrid gets above average marks on exterior styling, comfort and reliability. A big plus is the Honda Civic Hybrid's racy exterior styling. Not so good: Honda's technology inside is advanced, but the graphics are from the Pac Man era.
Saturn Aura Green Line: Make sure to put the Saturn Aura on your list of hybrid vehicles to test drive. The European exterior styling is appealing and the hybrid engine gets above average marks in acceleration and handling. The interior is where the Saturn Aura shines with its advanced technology, well-placed controls and modern use of colors, textures and materials.
For a few thousand dollars more than the entry-level hybrid vehicles above, buyers can upgrade to more engine power, luxury interiors and better technology with the Toyota Camry Hybrid (MSRP $26,000) and Nissan Altima Hybrid (MSRP $24,000).
What about CUVs & SUVs?
The debut of the 2008 Cadillac Escalade Hybrid is one of the most exciting things to happen in the hybrid SUV market. True SUV hybrids are hard to come by except at Toyota, where they have been building hybrid SUVs for a couple of years now. Toyota boasts the luxurious SUV-like Lexus RX 400h (MSRP $40,000) and the seven-passenger Toyota Highlander Hybrid (MSRP $33,000). Both of these vehicles were released with hybrid models in 2006 and continue to have great success in the SUV market.
Ford has two hybrid SUV models on the market in its Ford Escape (MSRP $25,000) and Mercury Mariner Hybrid (MSRP $25,000). While I'm still not impressed with the Mercury Mariner after a couple of road tests, I'd certainly recommend the Ford Escape, especially for families. This full-size hybrid SUV delivers above average gas mileage (34 mpg city), gets excellent marks in engine power, handling, technology, seating, flexible storage and interior styling. Some of the Escape's more environmentally-friendly attributes include sporting the industry's first fabric seating surfaces made from 100 percent recycled material.
Once again, don't overlook Saturn. The Saturn VUE Green Line (MSRP $23,000) is one of my top picks for hybrid SUV. The exterior is pleasing with its beefy grille and Euro styling and the 257-hp V6 engine gets excellent marks in acceleration and handling. The handsome interior was most surprising with its comfort, seating, flexible storage and nicely-designed controls and colors.
CUVs, sometimes categorized as small or midsize SUVs, are just beginning to be manufactured as hybrid vehicles. This almost untapped market is set to take off with 2009-2010 hybrid vehicles from almost every major manufacturer.
Many public transportation systems have been running on electric or some type of hybrid method for years. Now, finally, the truck market is going green. There are two 2007 truck models available with hybrid engines: Chevy Silverado 1500 Classic and GMC Sierra 1500 Classic (both have an MSRP of $16,000).
And if you are thinking about diesel trucks, Ford has diesel engines on its Ford Super Duty line of trucks.
Or, consider the Jeep Grand Cherokee Diesel (MSRP $39,000). Built by Mercedes-Benz, the 2007 Jeep Grand Cherokee Diesel is billing itself as the "first diesel-powered full-size SUV in the USA." I found this model's 3.0-liter V6 engine drives super slow in low gears. The initial acceleration feels like you are going nowhere compared to gas engines and there's a low bus-like "dinging" sound too. However, once you get out of second gear and pick up some speed, the Jeep Grand Cherokee Diesel drives just like any other powerful SUV (and with better gas mileage at 25 mpg hwy). Perhaps Mercedes-Benz designers also had something to do with this Jeep's highly appealing upscale interior.
The only true luxury hybrid car on the market is the incredible Lexus GS 450h (MSRP $55,000). I was lucky enough to road test a 2006 model and found its 3.5-liter V6 engine to whine and gurgle a bit at the start, but then accelerate to lighting-fast speeds. Many Lexus aficionados, it seems, are willing to go green on their luxury sedan, especially when they are getting an estimated 25 mpg city and 28 mpg highway. Another reason to look to Lexus is, of course, over-the-top interior styling, comfort and technology.
Tongues are already wagging about the 2008 Lexus LS 600h. Starting around $100,000, the Lexus LS 600h is being touted as the world's first AWD V8 hybrid. The huge 5.0-liter engine on this bad boy hybrid car is so far pumping out an estimated 20 mpg city and 22 mpg highway.
After decades of plain talk, car manufacturers are finally bringing a host of hybrid vehicles to market so more car buyers can finally choose from dozens of models, hopefully in some way saving our scenic highways and byways from extreme climactic devastation. Go green!