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Hybrid Car Review: American Hybrid Cars

Monday, March 23, 2009

American Hybrid Cars

When we talk about American cars, we're usually talking about GM, Ford and Chrysler.  Although the term American-made is getting more blurred by the day, these are the companies I want to discuss today.

The three American companies have had mixed success so far when it comes to hybrid cars.  Ford, one of the first to embrace hybrid technology, has been more successful than the other two.  GM, late to the party by their own admission, is now working frantically to produce any hybrid that will get them some notice.  Chrysler tried and quit on hybrids so quickly you may have missed it.

Ford Hybrids
Ford has five hybrids out right now.  The first three, the Ford Escape Hybrid, Mercury Mariner Hybrid and Mazda Tribute Hybrid are the same, just the badging, pricing and extras are changed.  The Hybrid SUV from Ford was the first hybrid SUV on the road, and the first American hybrid to begin production and sales back in 2004.  And it's still the most fuel efficient SUV on the road.

Ford is introducing two new 'American hybrids' this year, the Ford Fusion Hybrid and Mercury Milan Hybrid.  Again, these two cars are the same hybrids, just different badging and extras.

Based on a similar design as Toyota's hybrid technology, the hybrid system from Ford is a full hybrid, which means they can travel on electric power at low speeds and are powered by the gas engine at high speeds.  But, Ford has not made a profit on their hybrid cars up until now.  They took a risk and built up their own hybrid engine, but then took a conservative approach to rolling it out.  So, as Toyota and Honda pushed harder to up their production and sales, Ford has been happy with limiting the number of hybrids they were willing to build each year.

With the introduction of the Fusion and Milan Hybrids, Ford is ready to make a profit, but will still limit their sales to so many per year. 

GM Hybrids
GM chose to ignore the hybrid marketplace, until Toyota, Honda and Ford showed them how popular the idea was.  GM then decided to build up their mild hybrid line-up with the likes of the Chevy Malibu Hybrid, Saturn Vue Hybrid, and Saturn Aura Hybrid.  They also had the short-lived Sierra and Silverado 'hybrids', but each of these has been met with derision by those who are very interested in 'true' hybrids.

The BAS system from GM, while increasign fuel economy a little bit, is a mild hybrid system, incapable of moving the vehicle on electric power alone.  GM uses their electric motor to 'assist' the gas motor in their mild system.  The batteries are smaller, the costs are less, thus the cost to the consumer is less, but the fuel efficiency gain is small.  It's too easy for a consumer to make the comparison to the smaller engine (4-cylinder instead of 6) and say, why should I pay more for this minimal gain?

So, GM worked with BMW and Chrylser to develop a full hybrid system, labeled the dual-mode or 2-mode hybrid engine.  With two modes to increase fuel efficiency at different speeds, GM produced a hybrid engine for larger vehicles.  The new dual-mode hybrid does make a significant difference in fuel economy for their new hybrids SUVs and trucks, namely the GMC Yukon, Chevy Tahoe, Cadillac Escalade, Chevy Silverado, and GMC Sierra.  All of these larger trucks and SUVs get a 25% improvement in fuel economy when a hybrid engine is installed.

So far, however, sales have been lackluster for GM's hybrids.  Consumers who are interested in fuel economy savings are trending towards the cars that give them the most fuel economy, like the Toyota Prius.  True, they can't tow a boat with it, but if their priority was towing a boat, then that implicitly means fuel economy is less important to them.

So now, GM is also working on their Chevy Volt, an extended range electric vehicle (E-REV).  This is being touted as possible competition for the high flying Prius.  Instead of following in the Prius footsteps, GM has decided to leap-frog into the future, by creating this plug-in hybrid.

The Volt hybrid system is basically taking the opposite tact as their mild hybrid system.  Instead of the electric motor being used to 'assist' the gas one, the Volt will use the gas motor to 'assist' or extend the range of the electric motor.  After charging the battery up, you will be able to travel up to 40 miles (or so, depending on your driving conditions) without the gas engine turning on at all.  After that, the gas engine will recharge the battery pack.  The gas engine cannot move the vehicle on its own.  It's completely up to the electric motor.

It remains to be seen if the Volt will change people's minds about American hybrid cars.  It's definitely a risk for GM, but it's playing well in front of politicians and in the media so far.  The real problem is going to be one of cost.  Even with the new tax credits in place ($7,500 for the Volt from the federal government), the car is still going to be twice as expensive as the Prius or new Insight from Honda.

Chrysler Hybrids
Chrysler, whether you knew it or not, was in the hybrid market for two months.  They, along with GM and BMW, spent a lot of money to develop and produce the dual-mode hybrid engine, but then abandoned production of their Aspen and Durango Hybrid SUVs almost before they were built.  The economic crisis forced them to cut costs, and the sales and 'buzz' surrounding their new hybrids just wasn't big enough for them to continue to lose money on the proposition.

American Hybrids
Overall, there are more American hybrid types on the road today, mostly due to GM.  Since they've built up several different types of hybrids, the market has seen just about every type given a try.  But, so far, Ford has been the most successful at bringing hybrids to market.  They've sold more hybrids than GM has, despite only having the one type up until now. 

Building up hybrid technology is an expensive proposition, and so far, each of the American car companies has been willing to pay some of the price to do so.  It's unknown if they've made dime one on the effort, though.  Certainly, Toyota and Honda have managed to move from paying off the hybrid research and into making money off of each hybrid sold.  Ford has stated they will start making money once the Fusion and Milan start selling.  GM and Chrysler haven't sold enough hybrids to make it worth it so far.  And GM is going further into the hole with their Volt system.

Which makes me wonder if Ford was the smart one.  Early to the game and conservative in their approach, they may not have as many types as GM does, but their limited sales approach saved them from either giving up as Chrysler has, or continuing to spend, spend spend on developing other hybrids as GM has. 

American Hybrid Cars v Japanese Hybrid Cars

Right now, all three companies are behind Toyota.  Toyota is the clear hybrid leader, with 3 out of every 4 hybrids sold in the US bearing a Toyota or Lexus badge, and 50% of all hybrid sales are a Prius.  It's not unfair to say where Toyota goes, so goes the hybrids.  And Prius is practically synonymous with hybrid, despite the variety of other choices.

Ford could be said to be 'on par' with Honda, but we'll have to see how the new Insight fairs to be sure.  Honda, like GM, has tried several different approaches to hybrids, but seems to have seen the light with the new Insight.

But put together, it's clear that Honda and Toyota are competing with each other, not with the US companies.  The new Insight is a clear challenger to the Prius, something the American car companies haven't even tried to build.  Instead, Ford's new hybrids are being built to challenge the Toyota Camry and Honda Civic Hybrids.  And GM won't have any real competition until the Volt arrives.

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