2010 Hybrid Cars Round-up

The first hybrid gas-electric car in the United States, the original Honda Insight, reported its first 17 sales in December 1999. One decade and 1.5 million hybrids later, the auto industry is ready to embrace hybrids and other green cars like never before.

What are the major trends we expect as hybrid cars boldly move into the first year of their second decade? Read on and prepare for the green car movement to shift into warp speed.

Plug-ins Finally Arrive

The very first plug-in hybrids and mainstream all-electric cars will start to roll out in 2010. The first car out of the gate will be the 2011 Fisker Karma. Originally expected to go into production in late 2009, Fisker is now aiming to produce and sell its first units in mid-2010. The gorgeous sleek Karma is, in many ways, cut from the same expensive cloth as the Tesla Roadster. It’s pricey at $87,000 and will be produced in low numbers. But like Tesla, Fisker has its eyes on a bigger prize—a second more affordable model still a couple of years away. First things first: Let’s see how Fisker’s first customers respond when they get behind the wheel of the Karma, which promises a unique blend of high-performance, style, and 50 miles of all-electric range.

News of the Fisker Karma will get drowned out by Chevy Volt Mania 2010. Bob Lutz, GM’s Volt executive sponsor for the Volt, promised a media blitz for the company’s green car poster child. In September 2009, Lutz said that once GM has about 200 preproduction Volts in stock, it will “pull out the heavy artillery and get Volt buzz.”’ So, much of 2010 will be an extended drum roll for the Chevy Volt until the first production models roll off the line around November. All indications suggest the Volt will be worth the wait, notwithstanding low production numbers, limited availability mostly in California, and a price tag north of $40,000.

Not to be undone, expect Nissan to shout the praises of the all-electric Leaf while it prepares five mid-size test markets—Phoenix, Portland, Seattle, Nashville, and San Diego—for the first 5,000 models and the accompanying charging infrastructure in late 2010.

Hybrid Sales Return to Growth

The first plug-in hybrids and electric cars will mostly have symbolic value—and not much real impact on the size of the hybrid market. Meanwhile, sales of conventional hybrids are expected to grow for the first time since the big jump from about 250,000 sales in 2006 to 350,000 in 2007. The Great Recession wiped out the auto market in the second half of 2008, taking hybrids along with it. Hybrids have performed better than the overall market during the doldrums—but lack of consumer credit, a general economic malaise, and relatively low gas prices have meant a slow recovery.

A number of factors might conspire to lift hybrid sales back to 2007 levels—and help hybrids reach 3 or 4 percent of the new car market. We expect Toyota to increase production and output, and Ford—coming of the critical success of the 2010 Ford Fusion Hybrid—to get more aggressive with hybrid marketing and sales. The most significant is the price at the pumps. As 2009 winds down, the price of oil remains within striking distance of $100 a barrel. If oil prices surge and average national gas prices climb above $3 a gallon in 2010, expect hybrid sales to heat up like hotcakes again. Other factors include overall growth in the car market, increased hybrid and battery production capacity, and new models rolling out—both from hybrid stalwarts like Toyota and Honda, and newcomers such as Hyundai, BMW, Mercedes, Porsche and Dodge. Remember, the clock is ticking as car companies brace for the increase in national efficiency standards beginning in 2012.

New Models & Entrants

In addition to the plug-in hybrids mentioned earlier, a new set of carmakers will begin making hybrids. This will begin to break Toyota’s hybrid hegemony, and provide some level of competition for second-runners Honda and Ford (as they try to take market share from Toyota). Here’s a brief rundown.

  • Hyundai Sonata Hybrid

Hyundai’s first US-bound gas-electric vehicle is the midsize Sonata Hybrid, due in late 2010. The new Sonata design, unveiled in its home market of South Korea, has more coupe-like styling with an overall sweeping shape and arched roofline. The Sonata Hybrid will likely use a 2.4-liter four-cylinder engine with direction injection, and store energy in a 270-volt lithium battery pack. The Hyundai Sonata’s MPG? we asked a Hyundai spokesperson (who asked not to be named). He said, “Fuel economy should be improved by 20 to 25 percent, but those are not hard numbers.” That means the Hybrid Sonata could achieve combined fuel economy better than 30 miles a gallon.

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  • Honda’s Two New Small Hybrids: CR-Z Hybrid and Fit Hybrid

Honda’s stated hybrid philosophy has been to focus on small affordable models. The 2010 Honda Insight bombed in 2009, but Honda isn’t going to give up so easily. The company will try again in 2010 with the release of the 2011 Honda CR-Z Hybrid and the Honda Fit Hybrid. Last May, Japan’s Nikkei business daily reported that Honda will roll out the Fit Hybrid in Japan in fall 2010—about a year and a half ahead of the original schedule. Honda remains tight-lipped about details, including the date for a US release. Consider that the current conventional Fit carries a 1.5-liter engine and averages 30 miles to the gallon—and reports from Japan’s Nihon Keizai Shimbun that Honda is developing a 1-liter-class engine for the Fit. If the reports prove true and that configuration makes it to the US, the Honda Fit Hybrid could reclaim the mpg crown for Honda.

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The CR-Z Hybrid is Honda’s other small hybrid expected in 2010. First unveiled two years ago at the Tokyo Motor Show, it’s a sporty two-passenger coupe that mates a 1.5-liter four-cylinder engine to Honda’s proprietary Integrated Motor Assist technology and a six-speed manual gearbox. That would make the CR-Z the only hybrid on the market with a manual transmission. Light, sporty and futuristic are the keywords.

  • Mercedes-Benz ML450 Hybrid

At the New York Auto Show in April 2009, Mercedes-Benz unveiled its latest hybrid project, the 2010 Mercedes-Benz ML450 Hybrid. It’s the latest expansion in its ML sport utility line, and it makes the ML the first vehicle in the world to offer gasoline, diesel, and hybrid alternatives. The vehicle went on sale in late 2009. The hybrid ML450 combines a 275-horsepower, 3.5-liter V6 gasoline engine and two electric motors. Together, the complete powertrain delivers 335 horsepower and 381 foot-pounds of torque. Mercedes-Benz fitted its own, larger nickel-metal-hydride battery pack, which at 2.4 kilowatt-hours is almost half again as large as the packs used in GM’s various Two-Mode hybrids. Despite all the technology, ML450 Hybrid will provide a modest 21 mpg in the city and 24 mpg highway.

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  • BMW’s High-Horsepower Hybrids: X6 Hybrid and Active 7 Hybrid

The BMW X6 is a crossover SUV that has crossed over into sports car territory. The company calls the vehicle a “sport activity coupe.” Its chief characteristics are a sleek profile, sloping roofline, low-slung stance, short front overhang, long rear overhang, long wheelbase, muscular wheel arches, large wheels, four-wheel drive, stability control, and lots of performance. The X6 will probably get a non-hybrid-like 480-horsepower 4.8-liter V8 engine—yielding acceleration from a standstill to 60 mph in about 5 seconds. The 20 percent improvement compares to the conventional X6 is less impressive. But if luxury and high horsepower—with a smidgen of fuel efficiency restraint—is your thing, you might also consider the BMW ActiveHybrid 7, also due in 2010. It’s the fastest-accelerating hybrid sedan in the world, according to BMW. Expect fuel economy about 15 percent better than the 750i, which gets 15 mpg in the city and 22 mpg on the highway.

  • Dodge Ram Hybrid

Despite its problems, Chrysler still plans to roll out a hybrid version of the Dodge Ram pickup in 2010. Pickups continue to be the largest segment of vehicles sold in the US, so maybe an advanced technology high-mpg Ram will improve Chrysler’s fortunes? That’s unlikely. GM’s hybrid pickup, the Chevy Silverado Hybrid, developed in the same collaborative program that produced the Ram Hybrid, is selling about 200 units per month. Rising gas prices could conceivably convince Chrysler to produce the Ram Hybrid in bigger numbers, but pickup buyers shouldn’t hold their breath. Nonetheless, the technology is impressive: a multi-displacement 5.7-liter pushrod HEMI V8 gas engine mated to two 60kW electric motors allows the truck to use electricity, four-cylinder, eight-cylinders, or a combination thereof, to minimize fuel use and still provide three tons of towing capacity.

  • Porsche Cayenne Hybrid

On the automotive spectrum, Porsche and Prius are poles apart. For decades, one was the definitive German high-performance sports car brand, renowned for its extreme engineering and screaming flat-six engines. The other is barely a teenager, the very image of the modern high-mileage hybrid. Now the spectrum has warped, and the poles are coming closer. Before the end of 2010, Porsche will introduce a Cayenne S Hybrid version of its sport-utility vehicle—though this hybrid’s about as far away from the earnest nerdiness of the Prius as any Porsche can get. The 2011 Porsche Cayenne S Hybrid will use a direct-injected, supercharged Audi 3.0-liter V6 engine rated at 333 horsepower, paired with an eight-speed automatic transmission. Between the two is mounted a 38-kilowatt electric motor that puts out 221 lb-ft of torque, a full two-thirds as much as the engine itself does. Porsche claims 0 to 62 mph in 6.8 seconds with both the electric motor and the boosted engine providing power. A projected highway efficiency of 24 miles per gallon would be a marked improvement over the 2010 Cayenne S figures of 13 city and 19 highway mpg.

The Prius Evolves

With all of these new hybrids and plug-in cars hitting the market in 2010, what’s going to happen to the quintessential hybrid model, the Toyota Prius? After a spate of complaints in late 2009 about poor braking, Toyota can’t afford to rest on its laurels—even though the company continues to sell more Priuses than all other hybrid combined. Therefore, expect the Prius to continue to evolve.

With the Chevy Volt and Nissan Leaf threatening to steal the green car halo, the company is accelerating its plans for a plug-in version of the Prius. It won’t become available until 2011, but expect news about its trial run of 500 plug-in Priuses to continue to gain attention. At the same time, rumors of an entire Prius family of cars—from a subcompact hybrid to a crossover—will continue to percolate. We suspect those rumors to turn into real product announcement as early as the 2010 Detroit Auto Show in January. By the time a family of Priuses hit the market, the automotive world will be well on its way to offering 30 or 40 hybrids of all shapes and sizes, from low-cost to high-horsepower, from vehicles that barely save any fuel to ones that run almost exclusively on electric power.

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