Hybrid Nation

America's love affair with driving gets the green light

We're all for saving the planet—but not in a glorified go-cart. Thankfully, hybrid cars have undergone a radical makeover since they were introduced in 1999, and the latest models are snazzier, roomier, and more powerful than the original rides. You'll still pay a premium for the technology (hybrids cost up to $5,000 more than their gas-only counterparts), which isn't quickly recouped at the pump, even with gas prices staying above $3 per gallon. But here's the number that counts: By generating electricity while braking, then storing the power in onboard batteries, these vehicles rescue otherwise wasted energy, simultaneously reducing greenhouse-gas emissions by up to 30 percent and providing an extra source of horsepower. In other words, you can have your kayak-, bike-, gear-, and friends-hauling SUV without forfeiting your Sierra Club card. From sporty commuters to autobahn-worthy luxury sedans, hybrids have reached a critical milestone: You don't even have to care about global warming to want one.

The 2007 Toyota Camry Hybrid offers a sporty, midsize alternative to the company's best-known fuel miser, the compact Prius. The Camry employs Toyota's Hybrid Synergy Drive system, in which an electric motor propels the car at low speeds and supports the gas engine at higher speeds, giving it acceleration that's just on the spry side of adequate. Like many hybrids, the Camry uses a continuously variable transmission that works to keep the engine in its most efficient RPM range—a nice touch, though it gives the engine a drony, mowerlike quality under hard acceleration. The Camry Hybrid comes with several high-grade features, including a JBL audio system, dual-zone climate control, and optional Bluetooth capability. Unfortunately, nothing can be done about the battery pack—tucked behind the rear seats—which eats about a third of the trunk space found in the gas-only Camry.

MSRP: $25,900 As tested: $27,909 Hybrid premium: $1,500 MPG: EPA, 40 city/38 highway; our average, 31* Decrease in annual greenhouse-gas emissions from comparable gas-only model: 28.3 percent Pros: Styling, passenger comfort, power/fuel-economy balance Con: Limited trunk space

*Test drives included a mix of suburban conditions, with no emphasis on fuel conservation.

2006 Honda Civic Hybrid

2006 Honda Civic Hybrid
2006 Honda Civic Hybrid (+ISM)

Alt Fuel: Ethanol

Hybrids are leading the eco-car market, but they aren't the only way to run cleaner. Here and on the pages that follow, we examine four of the most promising alternatives, starting with ethanol. Optimists Say: Six million “flex-fuel" cars on U.S. roads today can run on either gasoline or E85, which is 85 percent ethanol (made from corn or other starches), producing 12 percent fewer greenhouse emissions than comparable gas-burners. Pessimists Say: Ethanol sources are limited, with just 835 pumping stations nationwide, mainly in the Midwest. To grow enough corn to match the demand for fuel, the U.S. would need twice the arable land we currently have for all crops. Learn More: www....

2006 Honda Civic Hybrid
From its kaleidoscope of a dashboard to its aerodynamic shape, the '06 Civic Hybrid is self-consciously modern, but inside the curves lies a classy, practical transporter. The Civic got the best mileage of any hybrid tested, pulling an average of 40 mpg during a mix of city and highway driving. For 2006, Honda improved the Integrated Motor Assist hybrid-drive system introduced in its Insight (the first mass-produced hybrid sold in the U.S.) in 1999. The system can propel the car on electric power alone, giving it full-hybrid status. But the noisy 1.3-liter engine still kicks over while the electric motor does its work, preventing the quiet cruising you get with the Toyota and Ford/Mercury systems. Drivers looking for more power can trade up to the Honda Accord Hybrid (MPG: EPA, 25 city/34 highway), a $30,000 hot rod (relatively speaking) with a system tuned for high performance, not maximum fuel efficiency.

MSRP: $23,350 As tested: $23,900 Hybrid premium: $2,500 MPG: EPA, 49 city/51 highway; our average, 40 Decrease in annual greenhouse-gas emissions from comparable gas-only model: 32.7 percent Pros: Fuel economy, comfort, value for money, full-size trunk Con: Could use another 20 horsepower

2006 Toyota Highlander Hybrid 4WD-I

2006 Toyota Highlander Hybrid 4WD-I
2006 Toyota Highlander Hybrid 4WD-I (+ISM)

2006 Toyota Highlander Hybrid 4WD-I

The Highlander Hybrid is the priciest SUV we tested, and the Limited model comes loaded with luxury features like leather-trim seats and a JBL stereo. Though the Highlander employs a setup similar to the Camry, it has more juice: The gas engine is an authoritative V6, which, combined with the electric motor, propels the SUV from a dead stop to 60 mph in 7.3 seconds (quicker than a V8-powered BMW X5). I tested the four-wheel-drive model, which uses an additional electric motor to drive the rear wheels. It isn't up to serious off-roading, but the extra motor adds traction in slippery conditions. Like its gas-only counterpart, the Highlander excels in roominess and cargo capacity, but a third row of seats, de rigueur among SUVs in its class, is largely theoretical for adults with knees.

MSRP: $39,290 (LTD) As tested: $42,054 Hybrid premium: $2,900 MPG: EPA, 31 city/27 highway; our average, 25 Decrease in annual greenhouse-gas emissions from comparable gas-only model: 21.9 percent Pros: Lots of power, luxury features, space Cons: Unspectacular fuel economy, pricey

2006 Mercury Mariner Hybrid 4WD

2006 Mercury Mariner Hybrid 4WD
2006 Mercury Mariner Hybrid 4WD (+ISM)

Alt Fuel: Biodiesel

Optimists Say: Since B20, which is 20 percent biodiesel made from refined (or recycled) vegetable or soybean oil, can be pumped straight into diesel cars, it's the only alternative fuel that doesn't require an upgrade to a new ride. Better still, it reduces emissions by 50 percent compared with petroleum diesel. Thanks to a 2005 federal tax incentive for biodiesel blenders, its annual use is expected to double in 2006 to 150 million gallons in the U.S. Pessimists Say: That's still just a drop in the bucket, and B100 (100 percent biodiesel, an option for newer diesel cars) gums up in cold weather. Learn More: www.biodiesel.org
—M. M.

2006 Mercury Mariner Hybrid 4WD
Like Toyota's hybrids, the Mariner can accelerate from a dead stop using electric power alone. Caught in rush-hour traffic, I found myself cheering for the system as it kept the vehicle rolling along soundlessly at speeds of up to 30 mph. The Mariner shares its architecture and engine (and parent company) with the Ford Escape Hybrid, though a few suspension tweaks give the Mariner a more supple ride. All bets are off when road surfaces get overly rough, however; engineers can only go so far to make an SUV glide like a town car. Between the electric motor and its 2.3-liter four-cylinder gas engine, the Mariner offers a sincere amount of oomph from the start, but highway passing is tedious and towing capacity is a feeble 1,000 pounds. The passenger room is spacious, and a large cargo area gives the Mariner a leg up on both gear-laden road trips and Saturdays in suburbia.

MSRP: $29,840 As tested: $33,635 Hybrid premium: $5,000 MPG: EPA, 32 city/29 highway; our average, 24 Decrease in annual greenhouse-gas emissions from comparable gas-only model: 26.8 percent Pros: Road feel, cargo space Cons: Engine noise, mileage just adequate

2007 Lexus GS 450h

2007 Lexus GS 450h
2007 Lexus GS 450h (+ISM)

Alt Fuel: Hydrogen

Optimists Say: Hydrogen fuel cells power vehicles by producing an electrochemical reaction between hydrogen gas and oxygen. The only by-products? Electricity and water. Pessimists Say: With just 36 hydrogen fueling stations in the U.S. and auto companies lagging behind on the technology, it'll likely be 2018 before we see these clean cars on the road. Plus it takes a significant amount of energy to produce hydrogen in the first place (from water, biomass, coal, or natural gas), making it imperative to improve the supply chain if hydrogen is to become a widespread alternative. Learn More: www.hydrogenassociation.org
—M. M.

2007 Lexus GS 450h
Hybrids can be dull, but the GS 450h is the riotous, self-indulgent yang to the Toyota Prius's quietly responsible yin. It's an expensive, sumptuously appointed luxury sedan that accelerates more wildly than a Porsche Boxster S. Ironically, the high-octane performance comes from a devilish twist in the hybrid-drive system that it largely shares with the Prius. In addition to propelling the car at low speeds, the electric motor acts like a turbocharger, transforming the 3.5-liter V6 into the equivalent of a V8, with a total of 339 horsepower. The car's fuel economy won't win any green awards—28 mpg on the highway—but that's a figure competitors from BMW and Mercedes aren't likely to duplicate without a strong wind at their tails. The GS 450h is outfitted with typical Lexusian gadgetry, from heated front seats to side-view mirrors that swivel down so you can see the curb while parallel parking.

MSRP: $54,900 As tested: $61,149 Hybrid premium: $3,500 MPG: EPA, 25 city/28 highway; our average, 23 Decrease in annual greenhouse-gas emissions from comparable gas-only model: 5.4 percent Pros: Blistering performance, luxury appointments Cons: Fuel economy looks good only when compared with the luxo-barges in its class, pricey

2007 Saturn Vue Green Line

2007 Saturn Vue Green Line
2007 Saturn Vue Green Line (+ISM)

2007 Saturn Vue Green Line
The Vue Green Line offers the lowest price of any SUV we tested, and its system is configured to maximize value in small ways—for example, by cutting out and restarting the engine during traffic stops, eliminating gas wasted at idle. The Vue's electric motor isn't designed to propel the SUV on its own, so you won't see a significant mileage bump during low-speed city and commuter driving, as with full hybrids. But the vehicle still offers great highway fuel efficiency. That, combined with a roomy cargo hold, makes the Vue a good road-tripper. The Vue doesn't have a mileage calculator, but a green eco light comes on triumphantly when the car is meeting or exceeding EPA ratings, which are around 20 percent higher than with the gas-only Vue.

MSRP: $22,370 As tested: $22,995 Hybrid premium: $1,500 MPG: EPA, 27 city/32 highway; our average, 25 Decrease in annual greenhouse-gas emissions from comparable gas-only model: 11.1 percent Pros: Price, cargo capacity Cons: Mediocre city mileage, numb road feel

»CLEAN UP: THE BENEFITS OF DRIVING A HYBRID
These days, you can get more than a fuzzy feeling by going green. As part of the Energy Policy Act of 2005, the federal government enacted a system of tax credits for hybrid-car buyers, based on an automaker's quarterly sales. The full credit is $3,400 for buyersof IRS-approved vehicles, but the complex system—which only a bureaucrat could love—encourages early adopters. The amount of the tax benefit decreases if a manufacturer sells 60,000 hybrids in a calendar quarter, then gets progressively smaller in subsequent quarters before eventually being eliminated altogether. (Go to www.irs.gov or www.fueleconomy.gov for information on specific vehicles.) In addition, many states offer income-tax credits and sales-tax exemptions, companies like Google and Bank of America are offering incentives to hybrid-driving employees, and in some metro areas solo hybrid drivers can legally use the carpool lane.

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