Unlocking the New Hybrids

At the New York Auto Show, the battle between fuel economy and performance continues.
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The sexy Lexus hybrid was the center of attention from luxury and wannabe luxury car buyers at the New York International Auto Show this year, but it may not be all that.

Sure, the 2008 LS 600h might have power, beauty and brains. It can put out 430 horses with its combined gas and electric engines, it has a sleek design, luxurious leather and a three-camera active safety system that monitors a driver's face, but something's missing from this picture: the motivation, at least traditionally, for buying a hybrid -- fuel efficiency.

Besides the desire to emulate hybrid-owning celebrities and permission to travel in the HOV lane, the word "hybrid" attached to a car implies concerns about rising gas prices and dependence on foreign oil.

And people have clearly been concerned: Hybrid car sales more than doubled from 2004 to 2005.

According to market research firm ABI Research, by this year, sales of hybrids will account for 10% of the 2 million midsize vehicles sold each year in the U.S.

But just as owning a hybrid SUV might erroneously seem to justify the low to mediocre gas mileage ratings, the same can go for a large, decked-out luxury vehicle like the Lexus 600.

Savings

Lexus still hasn't released data on its dashing debutante's combined city and highway gas mileage, but it will likely be in the low- to mid-20s, according to Brian Chee of Autobytel.com.

Lexus says the 600 is "on par with modern 12-cylinder engines while still delivering best-in-class V8-class fuel efficiency. It will equal or better the combined fuel economy ratings of smaller V6 all-wheel drive midsized luxury sedans."

That puts the gas mileage of the luxury Lexus hybrid, like a luxury V6 sedan, at less than half the gas mileage of Lexus parent company's

Toyota

(TM) - Get Report

Prius and the

Honda

(HMC) - Get Report

Civic Hybrid, the old-faithful gas-electric hybrid cars that lead the pack with 50 or more miles per gallon of gas, according to combined city and highway figures estimated by the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency.

Even the latest offerings from

Ford

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-- the 2006 Escape Hybrid and the Mercury Mariner Hybrid SUVs -- have notable fuel ratings, both at more than 30 miles per gallon.

And if Chee's guess is about right, the Lexus 600 could even fall behind the EPA's fuel-economy rating of

GM's

(GM) - Get Report

2006 Hummer H1, part of a line of cars whose sheer mass make it a poster child for gas-guzzling SUVs.

The "Performance Hybrid"

Thus far, for buyers considering hybrids, the importance of fuel economy and decent performance has been a toss up, since having one means sacrificing the other. But luxury-car buyers, according to Chee, pay more attention to performance than the cost of a tank of gas, mainly because they have more disposable income.

However, according to an Autobytel survey of online car shoppers overall, fuel economy was the top car-buying consideration, mattering most to 20% of those surveyed. Still, this barely topped the 19% who chose performance as their deciding factor when buying a car.

Of those car shoppers surveyed, 79% said high gas prices have influenced their driving behavior and buying choices.

Honda, however, does have something for car buyers on both ends of the spectrum. Compared with the 110 horsepower, 50-miles-a-gallon hybrid Civic, Honda's bigger, more luxurious 253-horsepower hybrid Accord gets a combined 28 miles a gallon.

Luxury carmakers are asking, "What can we do to make luxury shoppers want it?" Chee says. And performance is their selling point. Of course, as with the Lexus LS 600 hybrid, a pretty package of excess gadgets always helps.

Other Methods of Protection

For those looking to actually save money, use domestic-produced fuel and protect the environment with a lower-emissions car, there are several other options besides gas-electric hybrids. There's the performance-driven use of sugar-derived ethanol and vegetable-oil-based biodiesel, and even cheaper natural gas-powered cars that use home heating fuel, like Honda's 2006 compressed natural gas Civic GX, which is coming to New York dealerships this fall.

But what about a car powered by lithium batteries and solar panels? Now that's a hybrid.

At the auto show, Las Vegas-based

Hybrid Technologies

(HYBT)

showed a car primarily running on lithium ion batteries -- as opposed to the nickel metal-hydride batteries in gas-electric hybrids -- and a number of solar panels, thinly stretched over the car's body.

Lithium batteries are known to be lighter than other rechargeable batteries, as they hold more charge at a lighter weight, and they release fewer volatile gases than other cells.

And a lithium-powered car could run about 100 miles on one charge, which would cost about $5, according to the company.

So far, though, Hybrid has no estimate on when lithium-powered cars will enter the market. For now, the company shows its lithium-powered versions of Chrysler's Crossfire and PT Cruiser and sticks to selling its battery-powered bikes.

While the novelty factor of a lithium-solar hybrid brought in a steady trickle of curious viewers, the solar panels may have been purely for show.

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