It’s unlikely Ferdinand Verbiest was known as an environmentalist nor did he likely have a quest to be “green.” But as a Jesuit priest of Belgian ancestry living and working in China, Verbiest was a visionary. Four centuries ago, Verbiest was a renowned astronomer and he spent more than a decade developing a four-wheeled vehicle that could be powered by steam or horse. It was the first hybrid.
Depending upon one’s perspective, either a lot or not much changed in hybrid cars until 1997. That’s when Toyota debuted the Prius only to car buyers in Japan.
A decade later, the automotive industry is fully engrossed in the world of hybrid and other alternatively powered cars.
The Prius remains at the forefront of the industry, accounting for about half of 350,000 hybrids sold in the United States in 2007. But while the high-mileage Toyota dominates the market, an ever-expanding array of manufacturers know there’s plenty of room for everyone. Less than three percent of new cars sold in the country last year were hybrids.
As such, economy to luxury, sedans to pickup trucks, more than 65 hybrid choices will be available in the United States by 2010.
Here’s a look at five 2008 hybrid offerings:
* Chevrolet Malibu — Base price, $22,1400; Safety Features, dual-front, front side and side curtain airbags; Fuel Mileage estimates, 22-27 mpg; Warranty, Bumper to Bumper, 3 years/36,000 miles; Powertrain, 5 years/100,000 miles; Corrosion, 6 years/100,000 miles.
It’s hard not to see Malibu advertisements. With its keen redesign for 2008, Chevrolet put everything it had into the marketing of the car named after the southern California beach city.
The promotion began in earnest during the World Series and it hasn’t waned. Chevrolet wants the Malibu to compete with the Honda Accord and Toyota Camry, and that’s a hefty task.
With it hybrid version, new for 2008, the Malibu feature GMC’s “mild hybrid system” rather than its dual mode full hybrid system.
And when compared to other hybrids mainstays, the Malibu still goes in reverse before it finds forward gears. The reason: Early mileage for the hybrid are about two percent higher than to 22 to 27 mph for the gas engine Malibu. That’s little to boast about particularly when you’re trying to compete against established brands.
The hybrid’s configuration is a 36-volt electric motor coupled with a 2.4 liter Ecotec VVT four-cylinder engine with a four-speed manual transmission. Using an integrated starter-generator, mild hybrids, shut the gasoline engine off at stoplights.
With its well-touted exterior redesign, the new Malibu also features a sharp new interior that chrome outlines on gauges, center vents and the console shifter. Wood and several two-tone trims are also available.
Beyond cosmetics, the Malibu’s interior leg and body room is spacious, but head room remains only adequate. Its average head clearance can be overlooked considering the fast trunk, expansive access area and the spacious passthrough from the rear-seat to the trunk.
Overall, the Malibu hybrid offers an enticing price point in an exciting, attractive new version of a near-classic car that’s been around since 1964. But the hybrid version doesn’t yet distinguish itself against industry leaders.
* Ford Escape — Base price, $25,655; Safety Features, dual-front, front side and side curtain airbags; Fuel Mileage estimates, 30-34 mpg; Warranty, Bumper to Bumper, 3 years/36,000 miles; Powertrain, 8 years/100,000 miles; Corrosion, 5 years/unlimited miles.
Since its debut in 2004, the Escape has quickly built a steady following as the most fuel-efficient hybrid sport utility vehicle. But there’s more to the Escape than great gas mileage for its class.
While sharing the same platform as its close hybrid siblings — the Mazda Tribute and Mercury Mariner, the Escape feature a “full” hybrid electric system. The engine works in three ways — as pure electric, pure gas power or a combination of the two. After four years in its original design, the 2008 updated edition square-looking, giving the Escape a more rugged appearance.
In previous years’ editions, the Escape was rather noisy. But the ’08 improvements include a laminated windshield, acoustic headliner and thicker carpeting. And the console has also been streamlined and modernized.
While braking or decelerating, the Escape’s hybrid system relies on regenerative braking. The electric motor operates as a generator and coverts the vehicle’s momentum back to electricity for storage in the batteries.
The transfer presents the Escape hybrid’s one major concern: When decelerating, the engine has a high-pitched whine. It’s not unlike the sound of a distant ambulance. Once you get used the noise, all is well.
The Escape hybrid’s 4-cylinder gas engine and electric motor combine for 155 horsepower and is available only with an automatic transmission. As such, the hybrid isn’t a quick accelerator, but it seems faster than its rating of 0-60 mph in 9.6 seconds. And it’s quicker than the gas-only Escape.
The hybrid Escape has a diverse, if small, selection of standard features: rear window defrost, two-speed wipers and an easy-to-use liftgate with flip-up glass. But my test vehicle also included an expensive option with a cumbersome name — the Energy Audiophile and Navigation System ($1,995). It also included a few odd extra charges, an AC 110-volt power outlet ($180), for example. A “leather comfort group” added another $595, a non-detailed safety package also added $595 and the appearance package added $695.
The options and the destination charge pushed the total price to more than $30,000. It’s a hefty total for a compact SUV. But at least the sticker price can be rationalized with superior fuel efficiency and the hybrid’s clean exhaust-system benefits.