NYTimes.com Article: A Shade of Green: S.U.V.s Try to Soften Their Image
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A Shade of Green: S.U.V.s Try to Soften Their Image
February 16, 2004
By DANNY HAKIM
DETROIT, Feb. 15 - Can the sport utility vehicle, the b�te
noire of environmental advocates, be reinvented as a green
This year, Ford and Toyota plan to sell the first two
hybrid sport utility vehicles. With carlike mileage
expected, the advent of the hybrid S.U.V. may change the
uniformly visceral antipathy to sport utility vehicles
among environmental advocates, even if automakers are
unlikely to sell enough hybrids to significantly reduce
fuel consumption or pollution any time soon.
"I would definitely encourage people who need
four-wheel-drive vehicles to look at these," said the Rev.
Jim Ball, the president of the Evangelical Environmental
Network, a small group that sponsored a widely publicized
grass-roots campaign called "What Would Jesus Drive?"
"These vehicles are one small step," he added, "but we've
got a long way to go here."
The Toyota and Ford hybrids, which will be 2005 models,
supplement the internal combustion engine with an electric
motor that takes over at slow speeds and at stoplights, a
switch that they say can help S.U.V.'s get 27 to 40 miles a
The Ford Motor Company is scheduled to introduce the first
of the hybrids, a version of its Escape sport utility, by
the end of summer. In November or December, Toyota will
follow with a hybrid version of its Lexus RX330 sport
utility, the RX400h; it plans to introduce early next year
a hybrid version of its Highlander S.U.V. The hybrid
versions will be more expensive than the conventional
models, though neither company has yet said by how much.
From a consumer's perspective, hybrids are not much
different from conventional cars. They run on regular
gasoline, and the batteries for their electric motors are
recharged as they drive, so they do not need to be plugged
in. One consideration is that battery, which would be
costly to replace if it were to fail; most, however, are
under warranty for at least eight years.
Because the biggest gas savings occur at slow speeds,
hybrids sometimes disappoint customers who spend much of
their time on highways. That is borne out in Ford's
projections for the Escape hybrid: the front-wheel-drive
version will average 35 to 40 m.p.g. in the city, about
twice the 19 m.p.g. for the Escape that runs on gasoline
only. In highway driving, however, the Escape hybrid will
get 29 to 31 m.p.g., about 20 percent better than the 25
m.p.g. for the gasoline version.
Environmental advocates frustrated by the long-swelling
appetite for gas have embraced hybrids. Booming sales of
sport utility vehicles and big pickup trucks, coupled with
increasing horsepower for vehicles big and small, have
stalled advances in overall fuel efficiency.
In the 2002 model year, the fuel economy of the average new
light-duty vehicle sold in the United States sank to its
lowest point in more than two decades, according to the
Environmental Protection Agency. Cars averaged 24.4 m.p.g.
and S.U.V.'s 17.3 m.p.g. And that data understates the
mileage gap, because the heaviest sport utilities with the
worst fuel economy, like Hummers and Ford Excursions, are
not counted. They are so big that they do not fit the
definition of a passenger vehicle.
S.U.V.'s have also been widely criticized as unsafe.
Because they are heavy and have high ground clearance, they
are typically less stable and can inflict more damage on
passenger cars in collisions than other cars do. These
problems are being addressed to varying degrees by the
industry; the Lexus S.U.V., for example, comes with
electronic suspension-control technology that is intended
to reduce rollover risk.
"We fight S.U.V.'s because it is irresponsible to make
vehicles that guzzle, pollute and are unsafe," said Dan
Becker, a global warming specialist at the Sierra Club.
"But the auto companies have the technology to fix these
problems, and if they do, acceptance of S.U.V.'s will
So far, hybrids have not made much of a dent in fuel
economy trends. For several years, Toyota and Honda have
been the only automakers selling hybrids, and they sell
just tens of thousands in the United States, a country with
annual sales of 17 million vehicles. Toyota, however, has
said it plans to be selling two million hybrids a year,
worldwide, in a decade. The company now sells only the
Prius in the United States.
By 2015, 60 percent of the vehicles sold nationwide would
have to be hybrids just to stop the growth of automotive
global warming emissions beyond levels expected at the end
of this decade. That is according to a projection by David
Friedman, research director for the clean vehicles program
at the Union of Concerned Scientists, an environmental
research and advocacy group in Cambridge, Mass.
Financial analysts have estimated that hybrids are more
likely to account for as much as 10 percent to 15 percent
of the market over the next decade or so.
"If hybrids just end up as a niche vehicle," Mr. Friedman
said, "they really won't have an impact on the environment
and global warming. Millions of these vehicles have to be
sold every year."
But he says he thinks less ambitious technologies would
also be a good option. He recently collaborated on "a
blueprint for a better S.U.V.," a report that laid out a
design for a more fuel-efficient and less rollover-prone
vehicle that used less-expensive technologies than hybrid
systems. Many skeptics view hybrid power as an inherently
profit-sapping technology because it involves two drive
systems instead of one, though Toyota insists its hybrids
are already profitable.
"I'm just not a blind monk of hybrid technology," the chief
executive of Nissan, Carlos Ghosn, said last month. Nissan
will offer a hybrid version of its Altima sedan in 2006.
The industry is struggling to decide which of three
technologies has the most potential to cut fuel
consumption: hybrids, advanced diesels or hydrogen fuel
cells. The two vehicles to be introduced this year will
present hybrid S.U.V.'s in different packages: the Escape
is a basic, no-frills sport utility that starts around
$20,000 with a conventional engine, about $15,000 less than
a conventionally powered Lexus, a luxury vehicle. Hybrids
have, in the past, cost a few thousand dollars more than
similar cars, though the new midsize Toyota Prius starts at
about the same price as the midsize Toyota Camry. Fuel
savings can make up for the high purchase price over time;
there are modest tax deductions and Congress appears close
to offering more.
One feature of the Toyota Prius is a screen with a video
readout that charts fuel economy as driving conditions
shift. Ford will offer a similar feature as an option. The
Lexus will make it a standard feature, as it is on the
Prius, and will also use the screen to display the view
from a rear-facing camera to make backing up easier.
Toyota, which has years of experience in the hybrid game,
will pitch the Lexus RX400h as a combination of virtue and
muscle. Its V-6 engine (the Escape is a four-cylinder) has
270 horsepower, 20 percent more than the Lexus RX330.
"Lexus buyers wanted a hybrid, but they didn't want to be
in a vehicle that was recognized as such," a Lexus
spokesman, Bill Ussery, said. He said about 1,500 people
had already put down deposits.
Ford, as the world's third automaker to sell a hybrid,
hopes to carve out a spot between Toyota and Honda and the
rest of the industry. The Escape also offers a very visible
vehicle to begin to deliver on the desire of William Clay
Ford Jr., chairman and chief executive, to be seen as both
an environmentalist and an industrialist.
And the company hopes to capture some of Toyota and Honda's
green buzz. Ford executives said more than 21,000 people
have signed up to receive a quarterly e-mail newsletter
about the vehicle. Corey Holter, the marketing manager for
the Escape, said that "77 percent are non-Ford drivers."
"That's a great story for us, because it shows we really
are attracting incremental business," Mr. Holter said. "It
will provide a halo to the entire Ford division."
The Escape hybrid has been talked about for several years,
and has been previously delayed, but the company has been
emphatic that it will be on the road this summer.
Jeff Young of Chicago was one of the 21,000 people who
signed up for Ford's e-mail newsletter. He is a co-owner of
a business that makes hand carts used for gardening. Since
he bought a Chrysler in the mid-1980's, Mr. Young, 40, has
not owned an American car.
"The parts don't fit right. The materials are cheaper. They
tend to break down more and generally the styling lags
behind the imports," he said. But he sent an e-mail message
to Ford in 2002 because he had heard that the Escape hybrid
would be coming in 2003, as was originally planned. When it
did not materialize, he leased a Honda Element S.U.V.
instead. But his lease is up in 2006, and he said he would
consider a hybrid S.U.V. then.
"I'm not to the far extreme of either side," he said. "But
if you can do something like this hybrid technology, where
there's not much compromise, then it can do a lot to help."
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