Automakers Up Hybrid Vehicle Produciton

Toyota looking at production of hybrid-electric SUV for US market while other carmakers move forward with hybrid EV plans.

Published: 08-Mar-2002

DETROIT (AP) -- Ford Motor Co. (NYSE:F - news) will mass-produce the hybrid electric version of its Escape sport utility vehicle, and American Honda Motor Corp. will produce approximately 24,000 hybrid electric Civic sedans annually, the automakers said Wednesday.

Toyota Motor Corp. is looking at production of a hybrid SUV for the U.S. market, officials said Wednesday. The company already sells the hybrid Prius passenger car in the United States.

The comments from all three automakers came during a panel discussion on the future of hybrid vehicles at the Society of Automotive Engineers.

It may be a shrewd move if a study released Wednesday by the marketing firm J.D. Power and Associates is an accurate snapshot of consumer willingness to purchase hybrids.

The study said 30 percent of the more than 5,200 recent new vehicle buyers surveyed said they would "definitely" consider a hybrid electric vehicle, with another 30 percent said they would give it "strong consideration."

"Those who were knowledgeable about hybrids said fuel economy was the number reason, and typically the other two reasons are they're environmentally friendly, and post Sept. 11 they want to see less dependence on foreign fuel," said Thad Malesh, director of the alternative power technology practice at J.D. Power.

Hybrid vehicles use both an internal combustion engine and electric motor. They are able to attain fuel economy of more than 50 miles per gallon on the highway while reducing harmful tailpipe emissions because they burn less gasoline.

The engine is used to start the vehicle and bring it up to speed. Then the electric motor takes over, but the engine can kick in to assist during acceleration and climbing.

Ford plans to build "tens of thousands" of hybrid Escapes, which go on the market next year, said Prabhakar Patil, chief engineer at Ford.

He said, however, that the company's earnings from sales would depend largely on the price of gas, and whether the federal government offers tax incentives for buying the more environmentally friendly vehicles.

Toyota currently has 100,000 hybrid vehicles on the road worldwide and wants to triple that number within five years, said Masatami Takimoto, a member of the Japanese automaker's board.

He said the company is working on producing a hybrid SUV but had no other information.

While greater availability of hybrids is encouraging to some environmentalists, a member of one group who participated in the panel says automakers can raise fuel economy using existing technologies.

"You should be able to have your SUV and drive it too," said Jason Mark, clean vehicles program director, Union of Concerned Scientists.

"There are more existing ho hum technologies. You don't need hybrids to bring SUVs into the 21st century," he said.

Hybrid vehicles generally cost more than conventional versions of the same model, although Patil said he did not know what the price premium would be on the hybrid Escape.

However, the hybrid Honda Civic will cost "less than $20,000" when it goes on sale this April, said Benjamin Knight, vice president engineering at Honda.

The Civic will be the second hybrid in Honda's lineup. The company began selling a smaller hybrid, the Insight, in 1999.

The Chrysler Group of DaimlerChrysler AG (NYSE:DAJ - news) plans to sell a hybrid electric version of its Dodge RAM pickup truck for the 2005 model year, according to spokesman Max Gates.

Called the "contractor special", the truck's electric power system can be used as a generator to energize tools or lights, he said.

General Motors Corp. sells hybrid electric buses and plans to produce a hybrid full-size trucks by 2004.

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