The Automotive community took a giant leap of faith back in December of 1999 when Honda
Motors introduced the first ever gas-electric hybrid vehicle available in the United States; the two-seat futuristic-looking Insight subcompact. Shortly thereafter, Honda
's chief Japanese rival, Toyota, answered the bell with their first entry, the slightly larger, compact four-door Prius.
Since then, both Honda
and Toyota have introduced new hybrid offerings while Ford Motor Company has unveiled two gas-electric hybrids of their own (the Ford Escape mid-size SUV and 2006 Mercury Mariner mid-size SUV). Other manufactures have announced gas-electric hybrids are in the pipeline arriving during the next couple of years. Each manufacturer tweaks their hybrids a bit differently but all serve the same purpose; to improve gas mileage while reducing tailpipe emissions.
Although hybrids have been on sale for less the six years, certain trends have developed. When the Insight and Prius debuted, both incorporated exterior styling which made them quite recognizable as hybrids: both stood out in a crowd as being 'different.' Since then manufacturers have chose to incorporate hybrid technology into existing body styles. For example, in April of 2002, Honda
debuted it's second hybrid offering, the 2003 model year Civic hybrid (incorporating Honda
's second-generation of Integrated Motor Assist technology) with a less-hi-tech look. In fact, the Civic hybridlooked very much like every other Civic sedan in the lineup.
Contrary to urban legend, gas-electric hybrids do not have to be plugged in over night or parked for extended lengths of time to recharge the battery. With current technology, the battery gets recharged through kinetic energy during every-day braking. This electric energy is stored and used later during acceleration via an electric motor.
In 2004, gas-electric hybrids accounted for 0.5 percent of vehicle sales in the United States. By 2012, that number is expected to grow to 3.5 percent according to JD Power-LMC Automotive Forecasting Services.
and Toyota dropped off hybrids to the Daily Herald for evaluation last month starting with the 2005 mid-size Honda Accord
Hybrid sedan. The Honda Accord
hybrid marks the third hybrid vehicle from Honda
available in the United States featuring a third-generation IMA hybrid system. The 2005 Honda Accord
hybrid, which began reaching dealers in December of 2004, is based on the 2003 model-year Accord
redesign and, like the Civic hybrid, is hard to distinguish from other Accord
sedans save for the 'hybrid' designation on the trunk.
Other vehicles evaluated include the Toyota Highlander hybrid and the twin from its upscale Lexus counterpart, the RX 400h (the 'h' denotes hybrid). Both Highlander and RX 400h are mid-size car-based, four-door sport utility body styles. The RX 400h is the first hybrid offered by Lexus (and the first hybrid from a luxury automaker) and based on the RX 300 mid-size SUV, the best-selling vehicle in the Lexus lineup.
Hybrid technology comes with a price. Our 2005 Honda Accord
V-6 hybrid test model (including a Navigation system) had starting price of $32,140; with a $515 destination charge, the bottom line ended up at $32,655. Without the navigation system, the vehicle starts $2,000 less. A V-6 gas-only Accord
starts around $24,500.
The 2006 Toyota Highlander hybrid is available in two trim levels. Our up-level Limited edition included a starting price of $39,290 and a bottom line of $42,054 after factoring in a DVD navigation system and $565 destination charge. A similarly styled gas-exclusive Highlander Limited edition with V-6 engine (delivering 268 horsepower) with four-wheel drive starts around $31,580. The lowest-priced 2006 Highlander hybrid (a base edition) checks in at $33,030.
The 2006 Toyota Highlander hybrid comes with a 3.3-liter V-6 engine exclusive and is available with front-wheel or four-wheel drive. The hybrid version generates 270 horsepower. Seven passenger seating is offered in the hybrid Highlander.
The 2006 Lexus RX 400h comes with all-wheel drive standard and starts at $48,535. Our test model also added rear seat entertainment system ($1,840), heated front seats ($540), and a few other options bringing the bottom line to $52,703 including a $650 destination charge. An all-wheel drive RX 330 starts around $37,500.
The U.S. government currently offers a federal itemized tax deduction when purchasing a hybrid vehicle. For 2005 the deduction is up to $2,000. The deduction was set to expire, but a new energy bill signed by President Bush on August 8 replaces the federal tax deduction with a more generous tax credit that could total as much as $3,400 in subsequent years.
Also off-setting the higher sticker price are improved fuel economy figures. Currently the two highest-mileage hybrids available in the U.S. are the 2005 Toyota Prius with estimates of 60 miles per gallon in city driving and 51 m.p.g. highway and the 2005 Insight with estimates at 57 m.p.g. city and 51 m.p.g. highway. Both Prius and Insight utilize four-cylinder gas/hybrid engines.
In our trio of hybrid test vehicles, both the Highlander and RX 400h with similar 3.3-liter V-6 engines, generated 31 m.p.g. city and 27 m.p.g. highway. With hybrid technology, the city miles per gallon rating is usually higher than the highway m.p.g., which is opposite of traditional gas-exclusive engines. This happens because at lower speeds, the electric motor and energy storage system works in tandem with the gas engine. At highway speeds, the gas engine is doing most of the work. By comparison, V-6 gas-powered Highlanders and RX 330s with four-wheel drive averages 18 m.p.g.city and 24 m.p.g. highway.
The 2005 Honda Accord
hybrid adds another twist to fuel saving technology. The Honda Accord
V-6 hybrid generates 29 m.p.g. city and 37 m.p.g. highway from a hybrid system delivering 255 horsepower. Improved highway mileage is due to a cylinder deactivation system that automatically shuts down half of the six cylinders when traveling at highway speeds (and their services are not needed as much). Cylinder deactivation has been around since the 1980s, but improved technology has made the idea more applicable to today's sophisticated, computer enhanced V-6 and V-8 engines. By comparison, astandard Accord
with a gas-exclusive engine generates 21 m.p.g. city and 30 m.p.g. highway. The hybrid electric system also helps power the climate control system, the power rack-and-pinion system and power steering.
All three vehicles utilize regular, 87-octane unleaded fuel.
As with exterior nuances, the inside design provides few clues that your driving a hybrid vehicle, with the exception of a few dashboard displays providing battery voltage and other tidbits of information.
The Honda Accord
hybrid starts more like a traditional vehicle when turning the ignition key. One hears the gas-engine 'turn over' with a quite but perceivable. With the Highlander and RX 400h, however, when the ignition key is turned, no rumble is heard. With Toyota's technology, the electric motor handles low-speed chores until approximately 10 miles per hour when the gas-engine kicks in.
The Lexus 400h features various high-end nuances including heated front seats, leather-trimmed seats, in-dash navigation system and a rear-view camera feeding streaming video through the seven-inch dashboard LCD screen when the vehicle is moving in reverse. Also included is 10-way power driver's seat, dual zone climate control and full-sized spare tire. As with the Highlander hybrid, RX 400h generates 270 horsepower.
and Toyota currently assemble their hybrid vehicles in Japan. Nissan, the third of Japan's "Big Three" automakers, announced it will assemble a hybrid version of the Altima mid-size sedan at it's Tennessee assembly facility beginning next year. In May, Toyota announced a hybrid version of its popular Camry sedan will begin assembly at its Georgetown, Kentucky plant next year.
Toyota recently announced plans to add 10 more gas-electric hybrid vehicles (including Camry) by the early part of the next decade to boost worldwide sales to 1 million units per year. In addition to the hybrid Camry, plans are already in the works for a hybrid version of full-size Lexus sedan.
A question commonly asked is whether hybrids have enough 'oomph' or acceleration when needed. After testing three hybrid models for three consecutive weeks, the answer is a resounding 'yes.' During a 'quick merge' situation in southern Wisconsin, the Accord
hybrid took a real world test and it came through with flying colors, performing with the same gusto as a 'gas-only' Accord
In addition to a 'quiet idle' when stopped, another notable nuance is a slight electric 'hum' present when coming to a stop. The sound, similar to a golf cart 'hum' during acceleration, is the electric system recharging during the braking process.
Even though the technology is slightly upgraded from a traditional 'gas-exclusive' vehicle, driving a hybrid has an overall experience that's similar to gas-only vehicles. This is advanced technology to enhance daily driving, not technology that creates a different driving experience. While hybrids are not 'performance' vehicles, they are designed to get from point A to point B with better-than-average fuel economy.
and Toyota warranty hybrid components for eight years (Honda
's warranty is eight-years, 80,000 miles while Toyota's is eight years, 100,000 miles).