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2005 California International Auto Show

Ford Escape hybrid

The California International Auto Show in Anaheim is the first major auto show of each model year, as far as I'm aware; certainly it's the first that's close enough for me to attend. For the 2005 model year, I have been looking forward to an expansion of the number of available gasoline-electric hybrid models, so I went looking for them at the 2005 edition of the show (27-31 October 2004) on 30 October 2004; in this, at least, I was not disappointed. Pictured here is the first hybrid SUV, and the first hybrid from an American automaker, the Ford Escape HEV; it mates an electric motor to a 2.3-liter four-cylinder engine to give performance comparable to the 3.0-liter V6 version of the vehicle, but with much better fuel economy. Its MSRP is about $3500 more than a V6 version with either front-wheel drive or all-wheel drive, and fuel economy is about 30% better on the highway and 80% better around town! Of course, if it is as popular as the Toyota Prius, you can expect to pay a premium above MSRP, but I understand there is also a $2000 Federal tax deduction to sweeten the deal. The Escape hybrid is in showrooms now.

Lexus RX 400h

Lexus has struck a different balance with their RX 400h hybrid SUV; instead of being designed for performance comparable to the conventional vehicle on which it is based but with much better fuel economy, it is set up for much increased performance with modestly improved fuel economy. The RX 400h is based on the RX 330, which has a 3.3-liter V6; the RX 400h has a version of the same engine plus one (front-wheel drive) or two (all-wheel drive) 120 HP electric motors. The name is based on the calculation that the hybrid system plus the 3.3-liter V6 gives the power of a 4.0-liter V8. The fuel economy, price, and power numbers have not been finalized; I understand that the same drivetrain will be offered in the upcoming Toyota Highlander hybrid (the two vehicles are based on the same platform). The Toyota folks told me the Highlander would be available in late spring or early summer of 2005, and since the show I have learned that the Lexus will go on sale on 15 April 2005; the auto show program magazine labeled the Highlander hybrid as "New for 2005" and the Lexus hybrid as "New for 2006," if that tells us anything. I was definitely told that the first RX 400h vehicles built will be all-wheel drive, with the front-wheel drive versions coming later.

Honda Accord hybrid

The new Honda Accord hybrid sedan also focuses on performance, but this doesn't represent a complete departure from the fuel-economy emphasis of its Civic and Insight hybrids, the latter of which has had the highest EPA rating of all vehicles since its 2000 introduction. The V6 Accord sedan has a 240 HP, 3.0-liter engine; the hybrid version mates a 3.0-liter V6 to an electric motor for 255 HP. Its fuel economy is nonetheless about 40% better in town and 30% better on the highway; this is because the hybrid version of the V6 has "Variable Cylinder Management," meaning that under light loads half of the cylinders shut down, a first for a hybrid. By contrast, the Civic hybrid gives about the same 40%/30% fuel-economy improvement compared to the conventional Civic sedan, but rather than shutting down cylinders under light load it simply has a smaller gasoline engine, 1.3 liters instead of 1.7 liters. (None of these gets the huge 80% improvement in city fuel economy of the Ford Escape because they are "mild" hybrids, with small electric motors that assist the gasoline engine, rather than "full" hybrids like the Escape and Toyota Prius that can run under some conditions on the electric motor alone.) The hybrid Accord should be available in December 2004; a sign next to it said that MSRP would be $30000, which would be about $3500 more than the regular V6 sedan. Plus popularity premium, minus tax deduction, of course!

GMC Sierra hybrid

The Chevrolet and GM hybrid pickups represent yet another way to tune hybrid technology. These vehicles have the same 5.3-liter V8 as regular models, plus a relatively small electric motor that doesn't give much boost at all but rather is mainly useful as an oversized starter motor to enable the gasoline engine to shut down at idle without an extended period of cranking to restart when the light turns green. This only gives about 10% improvement in fuel economy, but where these pickups are remarkable is in that they can provide 20 amps of 110-volt AC power even when parked and shut down. This will cut pollution and increase operator convenience compared to a separate generator or a power take-off (from a running engine), for workers who need electric power tools at a job site, say. The hybrid option adds $1300 to the MSRP. I understand that there will also be a hybrid version of the 2005 Dodge Ram diesel pickup, but if it was present I didn't see it.

GMC Sierra hybrid

The batteries in every other hybrid offered are nickel metal hydride (NiMH) packs, typically with pack voltages of around 300 volts; this is also the most popular kind of energy storage in fuel-cell vehicles. The Chevrolet/GM hybrid pickups, however, have lead-acid batteries not only for their regular 12-volt systems (lights, computer, etc.) but also for the 42-volt hybrid pack. This is probably part of why the cost differential is much smaller than that of other hybrids, despite the value added by the 110-volt power outlets. The GM Hybrid logo on the doors and tailgate is the first time I've seen a GM (as opposed to GMC) logo on a vehicle since the EV1 electric cars went to the crusher; I guess I can take some comfort in this element of heritage from the EV1, along with some of the technology under the hood (including those lead-acid batteries).

Honda FCX and hybrids

The Honda FCX fuel-cell vehicle in the foreground here also has some heritage from the late Honda EV Plus, not least in the body itself; I don't know if Honda simply hollowed out the EV Pluses as they came off lease and built the fuel-cell drivetrains into them, but it sure looks like it. Behind the FCX are the Accord, Insight, and Civic hybrids; the billboard behind the cars talks about the FCX, hybrid Accord, and natural gas powered Civic GX, but there was no GX present. I said at the top of this page that with regard to new hybrids, I wasn't disappointed; however, this is the first auto show I've been to since the EV1 was introduced in 1996 when there was not a single non-gasoline-fueled vehicle on display that was in series production. The FCX has been made in the low dozens, as part of a demonstration deployment in a few cities; I understand that a Hummer with a hydrogen-powered internal-combustion engine (as opposed to a hydrogen fuel cell) was supposed to be present, but I didn't spot it, and anyway this is a one-off GM prototype. (Actually, the Hummer was driven by California Governor Arnold Schwarzenegger to inaugurate a hydrogen refueling station at the Los Angeles airport a few days earlier; initially he pretended that it was his personal vehicle converted to hydrogen, and then he hooked it up and pretended to fuel it at the not-yet-working hydrogen dispenser.) As I have recently discussed in detail on this website, this auto show encapsulates a disturbing trend that I've seen lately: the attitude of automakers seems to be that since we have hybrids now, and we promise hydrogen vehicles in the (indeterminate) future, we don't need to bother with alternative fuels like electricity, natural gas, propane, etc. But hybrids remain gasoline vehicles (they are advertised as "you don't have to plug them in," but a more honest statement is "you can't plug them in" to refuel with cheap, clean electricity) and will get dirtier over time at about the same rate as non-hybrid gasoline vehicles, while hydrogen won't make a dent in the market for decades, if ever. So what are we going to do to clean the air in the meantime? And if automakers are cutting back or abandoning their commitment to natural-gas vehicles, as all except Honda are doing, why should we expect them to follow through on their stated commitment to hydrogen vehicles? Well, in past years I have been disappointed during the Anaheim auto show in the fall, but have found better news at the Los Angeles show in January of the new year, so I guess I'll hold on and see how that one turns out.

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new 12 November 2004