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What's new in Hybrids for 2009-2010


Are you ready for Hybrid Heaven?

By Bill Roebuck

Thanks to last year's big spike in gasoline prices, there's been a charge of new hybrid cars to the market.

2010 Ford Fusion Hybrid.The newest hybrids are more practical than ever. Hybrid car prices currently start at around $26,000 in Canada but are coming down in the year ahead, thanks to increased volumes and cheaper batteries.

The term 'hybrid' typically refers to cars, SUVs and trucks that boast an electric motor in addition to their gasoline engine. The electric power comes from a built-in battery -- usually located behind the rear seat or under the trunk floor -- that recharges itself as you drive. You don't have to plug them in.

The electric motor automatically and seamlessly kicks in at low speeds, such as in city driving that typically uses the most fuel, thus significantly improving overall fuel economy.

One example of the latest breed of hybrids is Ford's new-for-2010 Fusion Hybrid five-passenger sedan, boasting a completely revamped hybrid system borrowed and improved from the company's well-tested Escape Hybrid SUV. It's scheduled to go on sale in February 2009.

With the new technology in this hybrid, you get electric-car like capabilities without their short-range hassles. This model goes as fast as 75 km/h under electric power before it needs to switch on the gas engine for a boost. That's pretty much a record, as most current hybrids need gas engine assistance at under 40 km/h or so. It also means you can do a lot of your city driving -- if not all -- under emissions-free electric power.

2010 Ford Fusion Hybrid instrument panel features vine leaves on right side that grow or fall off depending on your driving style.The Fusion Hybrid has a very novel new instrument panel display, where the battery meter switches to a tachometer when the gas engine links up.

Your driving style still affects your fuel economy, even in a hybrid, so to encourage a gentler press on the go pedal, the same display shows a picture of a leafy green vine. The more environmentally friendly you drive, the more leaves you see. Stomp on it and the leaves start to fall off. Visually, you're reminded what you're really capable of doing to the environment with your car.

2010 Honda Insight EX.Another novel hybrid that will reach showrooms this spring is the re-introduction of the five-passenger, five-door Honda Insight. Honda says the 2009 model will carry a price significantly below that of hybrids available today.

The latest Insight uses a new interactive, driver-focused fuel economy enhancement technology called the Ecological Drive Assist System (Eco Assist) to help drivers achieve enhanced fuel efficiency.

Eco Assist combines multiple functions: an ECON mode that optimizes control of the continuously variable transmission, engine and related powertrain components to conserve fuel; and a feedback function that uses the speedometer background colour to provide real-time guidance on environmentally responsible driving. An economy scoring function also provides feedback about driving techniques.

Hybrid Differences

Some hybrids like those from Honda use a series hybrid system, known as a 'mild hybrid'. Here, the electric motor assists the gasoline engine when needed, for example during acceleration or times of heavy load, but doesn't power the car on its own. This is a less expensive system than a 'full hybrid'.

A parallel or 'full hybrid' system -- as used in the Ford Escape Hybrid SUV and various Toyota and Lexus vehicles -- can be powered by the gas engine only, the electric motor only, or both at the same time.

The initial generation of Honda Insight was the first gas-electric hybrid to be sold in North America when it was launched in 1999. The Toyota Prius launched a few weeks later.

Toyota is the only automaker to design, develop and manufacture its own hybrid batteries.

While the batteries for hybrid vehicles are not cheap, they are now manufactured in mass production quantities because of the many hybrid models using them, so costs continue to come down. By the time these batteries do need to be replaced, they should be more affordable.

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Somewhat like the Ford Fusion, the Insight's scoring function provides long-term feedback through graphic 'leaves,' the number of which increase over time as drivers implement driving practices that increase fuel economy.

Already in Honda showrooms is the Civic Hybrid, which gets new exterior styling for 2009 and becomes more upscale with the addition of optional features that include leather-trimmed seating surfaces, heated front seats and side mirrors, and Bluetooth on models equipped with a navigation system. The 2009 Civic gets a city/highway fuel economy of 4.7/4.3 l/100 km (yes, that's right -- the city mileage is better than the highway, and that's not uncommon with hybrids).

Hyundai, now committed to having the most fuel efficient fleet in the industry by 2015, will do this with a plan it calls Blue Drive, which employs direct injected turbocharged models, hybrid technology, and extended mileage vehicles. Hyundai will use more powerful lithium-polymer battery technology and a parallel hybrid drive system that pairs a 2.4-litre gasoline engine with a 30-kilowatt electric motor in the coming Hyundai Sonata Hybrid, which will come to Canada in 2010.

2010 Toyota Prius.Toyota currently offers two gas-electric hybrids, the Camry Hybrid sedan and the mid-size Toyota Prius sedan. The Prius remains the best-selling gas-electric hybrid vehicle in the world. Toyota will be bringing an all-new hybrid to the market with its 2010 Prius. Confirmed details weren't available at press time, but the new model is expected to have a more powerful engine, improved aerodynamics and an optional solar roof, which will assist with providing power for the air conditioning and electronics. A Toyota corporate blog confirms it will have better fuel economy than the existing model.

The Nissan Altima Hybrid uses familiar technology as the company has licensed Toyota's hybrid technology, mating it with Nissan's own internal combustion engine. In essence, the Altima Hybrid is a full hybrid that performs similarly to the Toyota Prius.

The Chevrolet Malibu Hybrid and Saturn Aura Hybrid from General Motors are both equipped with the GM Hybrid system, which reduces fuel consumption via sophisticated controls and a unique electric motor/generator mated to a 2.4-litre four-cylinder engine and four-speed transmission.

2009 Saturn Aura Hybrid.The 2009 Malibu Hybrid delivers an estimated 5.8 l/100 km in highway driving and 7.9 in the city, an improvement over 2008 models, thanks to better control of the battery charging/discharging system and new low-rolling-resistance tires. It costs about $28,000.

While maintaining the vehicle's sporty feel, the GM Hybrid system seamlessly reduces fuel consumption by shutting off the engine when the vehicle is stopped, to minimize idling; enabling early fuel shut-off during vehicle deceleration; converting vehicle kinetic energy to electrical energy through regenerative braking to charge its nickel metal hydride battery; and performing intelligent battery charging when it is most efficient.

With more space, we could also tell you about all the hybrid pickup trucks and SUVs currently on the market or coming soon from Ford, General Motors, Toyota, Lexus, Mazda and Saturn. Like cars, these models also offer 15% or better improvements in fuel economy.

2009 Chevrolet Malibu Hybrid interior.Are there any drawbacks to hybrids? A few. You'll pay more at retail than for standard models, but may get some of that money back from government incentives for hybrids and by saving at the pump with longer distances between fill-ups. You also lose a bit of cargo space, as space is taken up by the battery system No biggie, considering the benefits.

Finally, that battery won't last forever -- it's typically guaranteed for eight to 10 years and may last a lot longer, but nobody knows for sure, so that might affect resale value of this or any hybrid vehicle way down the road. And already, the prices of replacement batteries have begun to drop.

You'll have to do a bit of math to figure out if a hybrid is a financial win, but like many hybrid drivers, the choice may reflect more a desire to 'go green' than to keep more money in your pocket.

CarTest.ca. Posted Jan. 20, 2009. Bill Roebuck is the editor of CarTest!


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