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On The Road

A trio of gas savers: Hybrids from Honda, Ford & Lexus aren't cheap, but neither is gasoline

Courtesy of Honda
The Honda Accord Hybrid, priced at just above $32,000, utilizes a technology that shuts down three of the six cylinders when it's driven on the freeway. The car gets 37 miles per gallon on the highway.

Gas prices in California hit an all-time high last week and appear headed for $3 a gallon before the end of summer. What's a car buyer to do?

The answer for thousands of buyers is to get in line to purchase one of the new generation of mainstream hybrid vehicles that came on the market in 2005.

We say "mainstream" because the three cars we recently tested are each nearly identical to their non-hybrid siblings - except for their tasteful little green "Hybrid" logos on the rear. Choosing one has as much to do with the purpose for which the vehicle is being purchased as it does the fact that the car uses hybrid technology for fuel-efficient, low-emissions propulsion.

The speed with which this new technology has progressed has been nothing short of phenomenal. Hard to believe that the first hybrid cars - the Honda Insight and Toyota Prius - were introduced only five years ago. At that time, they were straight out of Buck Rogers, all about fuel savings and only coincidentally about providing general-use transportation.

By contrast, the three vehicles we drove offer hybrid drivetrains with excellent fuel economy and low emissions but are almost indistinguishable from others of their type.

The Honda Accord is a nice general-purpose four-door sedan suitable for the person who thinks an automobile has four doors and a trunk, can carry four or five people comfortably, and is intended to transport driver and passengers to their destination along regular streets and roads with a minimum of fuss, bother or ostentation. For that person, the Accord Hybrid is perfect. It sells for just more than $32,000.

The Ford Escape is intended for the person who wants a better vantage point in traffic, a little more cargo space that can be expanded when needed, and expects occasionally to traverse snowy, muddy, hilly (or all of the above) back roads, or at least confidently confront rain and ice on regular roads. The Escape buyer is still budget conscious and doesn't want a vehicle that says power or status. All those characteristics in the Escape Hybrid can be purchased for just about the same price as the Accord.

The Lexus RX400h is for the person who wants more space, more power, more off-road capability, more luxury and comfort. In short, the person who is only happy with more, but has the budget that can handle a price tag of just under $50,000.

Each one of them, hybrid version or not, is the top seller in its category. The Accord Hybrid was just named top family sedan by Consumer Reports, the Escape Hybrid was picked North American Truck of the Year by motor journalists, and the RX is the top-selling luxury SUV.

The only drawback to the hybrids is that they are more expensive than the standard version. Even if you factor in the savings at today's high gas prices and the federal tax incentives that are still available for purchases of hybrids, the hybrid version will cost a few thousand dollars more than the standard version.

In return for forking over the extra cash, the buyer gets a little hybrid logo on the back of the vehicle, and the knowledge that he or she is doing his or her bit to clean up the air and reduce our dependence on foreign oil.

But for a very large consumer group, the satisfaction of doing our bit for geopolitical stability and averting global warming, when coupled with the bragging rights of owning a cutting-edge new technology, is more than enough to justify the trade-off.

If proof is needed, it's only necessary to look at the waiting lists to buy these cars. Largely because of limited battery manufacturing capacity, consumer demand for the new hybrids is not likely to be satisfied for at least another few years.

All three of these vehicles share in common the basics of hybrid technology. They each use a gasoline engine for primary propulsion, but because they also incorporate electric motors as part of the power train, the engine in each can be slightly smaller than in the standard version.

Each takes advantage of energy created when the vehicle is braking, or the gas engine isn't having to work to its maximum, to create electricity by using the electric motor as a generator. That electric power is stored in a battery pack to be used to power the electric motors when necessary.

Each also shuts off the gasoline engine whenever the vehicle is stopped, such as at a stop sign or when waiting for a turn, and then an electric motor on board instantaneously restarts the gasoline engine as soon as the throttle pedal is pushed.

Finally, each uses an electric motor to boost the power being put to the wheels by the gasoline engine when needed, such as when accelerating or going uphill.

By doing all these things, each of the cars gets better gas mileage because it can run with a smaller engine, and because the engine is frequently shut off during normal operation.

In addition, the smaller gas engine produces fewer emissions, and best of all, since the engine is shut off when stopped, total operating emissions are significantly reduced.

Because of the combination of gasoline engine, electric motors and batteries, another significant advantage is increased travel distances between fill-ups. These vehicles only need to stop at a gas station about every 500 miles.

But beyond the similarities, there are differences among all three vehicles.

To start with, the hybrid Accord is designed to use its primary electric motor to add power to the gasoline engine, for better performance. And with over 250 horsepower from the engine and motor running together, the car is extremely peppy. The Accord hybrid can manage to satisfy a tree-hugging speed freak, if that isn't an oxymoron.

To supplement the gas savings from efficient energy use, the Honda also incorporates a technology that shuts down three of the six cylinders when the car is cruising on the highway. As a result, the Honda produces the best highway-test mileage of this group, at 37 mpg, while still delivering a respectable 29 mpg in city tests.

However, the electric motor is not powerful enough to move the car by itself, so the gasoline engine is always running while the Accord is moving. But with a lightweight electric motor, the car gains some mileage advantage.

By contrast, the Escape is a "full hybrid," which means that if the battery is fully charged and the car is moving at fairly low, constant speed, the gasoline engine shuts off and the electric motor does all the work. We found this to be a cute trick as we were able to cruise silently from Foothill Expressway down Main Street all the way to San Antonio Road without ever engaging the gas engine.

The consequence of this approach is that the Escape gets a group-best 36 mpg in EPA city tests, but mileage drops to 31 on the highway when the electric motor doesn't do anything.

The Lexus is also a full hybrid, though with its weight we didn't find ourselves ever running only on the electric motors. But what Lexus also does with the technology is to add an extra electric motor to power the rear wheels as needed. This is an interesting new solution to the problem of powering all four wheels when slick conditions or a tough off-road situation demands it.

The Lexus gets about the same city economy as the Accord, and the same highway mileage as the Escape. But bearing in mind that this vehicle weighs over 1,000 pounds more than either of the two smaller vehicles, this is pretty impressive and is a gain of seven miles per gallon over the non-hybrid Lexus RX330.

But what are these vehicles like to drive? Quite simply, there's no downside to the hybrid technology. Each of them is as good or better than the standard version.

We were particularly impressed when we took the two SUVS on challenging back roads in Hollister Hills and above Palm Springs. Stopping on pretty steep inclines, we were a little concerned when the engine would shut off. What was going to happen when we took our foot off the brake and tried to get back in motion?

In both vehicles, the automatic brake feature held, the engine immediately started up, and the traction control got us in motion with absolutely no problems.

Similarly, the Accord never left us in any difficult circumstances in San Francisco traffic, even though the engine shut off at every intersection.

After testing these cars, we have to say that if we were in the market for the type of vehicle right now, we'd put our name on the waiting list and be happy to pay the premium. Not only would we feel like good citizens and good environmentalists, we would also secretly be pleased to get the little bit of oomph that electric motors add to the gas engine performance.

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