Hybrid manufacturers target the mainstream

When a conservative company like General Motors puts a genuine hybrid-powered sedan on the market, you know these alternate-power vehicles have arrived. Previously aimed at tree huggers and Birkenstock-wearing environmentalists, hybrid cars have gone mainstream and are now available in a range of shapes and sizes, with more on the way. Here's a look at what's on the market.

SATURN   Until now, the General Motors version of a hybrid vehicle was one with a heavy-duty starter motor that shuts the vehicle off at stoplights and restarts it when the driver's foot comes off the brake pedal. The Sierra and Silverado pickups offer this arrangement. Since the largest amount of emissions is released when the vehicle is idling, this simple setup makes pretty good sense, even if it isn't strictly a hybrid arrangement. The General has kicked things up a notch–sort of. The new-for-2008 Saturn Aura Green Line is what the company calls a "mild hybrid". It comes with regenerative braking and a small electric motor that powers the car's accessories when the engine shuts off, as well as providing a little extra oomph during acceleration.

The Aura Green Line is not powered by electricity alone, but does deliver 25 percent less emissions than its conventional counterpart. More to the point, it has the lowest sticker price of any midsize hybrid sedan in Canada: $27,290. That's at least $10,000 below the Toyota Prius or Camry. Since virtually all hybrids cost more than regular cars, this puts hybrid technology within everyone's grasp. The Aura Green Line joins Saturn's Vue Green Line, which has the same drive train and, with a suggested retail price of $28,795, is the most affordable hybrid SUV in Canada. Where companies like Toyota concentrate on the technological side of things, GM's strategy seems to be much simpler: make it affordable.

FORD   Speaking of Toyota, Ford utilizes much of the Japanese company's hybrid technology in its Escape Hybrid SUV, including a regenerative braking system that "harvests" electrical energy when the car decelerates. According to Natural Resources Canada, the Escape Hybrid achieves one of the lowest fuel-consumption rates in the country: 6.4 litres per 100 kilometres in town and 6.9 litres per 100 kilometres on the highway. Available in either front- or four-wheel drive, it has a suggested retail price of $30,379, and is in line for a rebate from the federal ecoAUTO Rebate program (www.tc.gc.ca/programs/environment/ecotransport/ecoauto.htm) and provincial sales-tax exemption.

HONDA   You may still be able to find one, but Honda will be deep-sixing the Accord Hybrid at the end of this year. This leaves the Civic Hybrid, which is the second-thriftiest hybrid car sold in Canada. (Toyota's Prius is first.) The Civic Hybrid consumes only 4.7 litres of fuel per 100 kilometres in town and 4.3 litres per 100 kilometres on the highway. Better yet, it emits 1,248 kilograms less carbon dioxide over the course of a year than a regular Civic, which is a pretty clean-running car in its own right.

Responding to criticism that the original Civic Hybrid wasn't a "pure" version, Honda revamped the drive train, and under certain conditions the car will now run on pure battery power at up to 60 kilometres per hour. It also shuts the engine off at stoplights, and the electric motor acts as a power assist when more snap is needed, for instance when overtaking on the highway. Either way, the driving experience is seamless, and most people don't even notice the drive-train fluctuations.

Priced at $26,250 to start, the Civic Hybrid is also eligible for the aforementioned tax exemption and rebate.

TOYOTA   With six hybrids on the market, including some of the Lexus models, Toyota is the definite front-runner in this alternate-fuel technology. The Prius is now in its second generation and is in widespread taxicab use throughout Canada. If nothing else, this indicates that the company's "Hybrid Synergy Drive" is reliable. The system allows the vehicle to be operated by electric power, gas engine, or a combination of the two. Depending upon conditions, the battery-powered electric motor propels the car up to about 40 kilometres per hour, beyond which the gas engine cuts in. On the highway, the electric motor can also be called upon for an unobtrusive power boost when overtaking, for example.

Toyota is offering its hybrid technology in the Camry, Prius, Highlander SUV, and Lexus LSh and GSh sedans, as well as the RXh 400h SUV. Prices range from about $32,000 for the Camry and Prius to $132,000 for the top-of-the-line GSh. How refined is Toyota's hybrid technology? It's being used under licence by at least two other manufacturers, so it must be doing something right.

NISSAN   One of these manufacturers is Nissan, which recently entered the fray with its Altima Sedan Hybrid. Like most hybrid vehicles, the Altima utilizes a gearless constantly variable transmission, which is similar to that found in a snowmobile. Its 2.5-litre four-cylinder engine is mated to a 40-horsepower permanent-magnet electric motor that is powered by a nickel metal hydride battery. At speeds up to about 25 kilometres per hour, the Altima Hybrid runs on battery power alone, which means it's doing its bit for the environment mainly in bumper-to-bumper traffic. This gives the Altima Hybrid a claimed fuel consumption of 5.6 litres per 100 kilometres in town and 5.9 litres per 100 kilometres on the highway, with a range of 1,300 kilometres. That means you can drive from Vancouver to Calgary without stopping for fuel. Not to mention this puts you in line for a $1,500 rebate from the federal government and a $2,000 forgiveness from Victoria. The new Altima Hybrid has a base price of just under $33,000.

We definitely haven't seen the last of hybrids. General Motors has a slew of new models waiting in the wings, and BMW and DaimlerChrysler are close to putting their own versions on the market. These are interesting developments from a technology that was just supposed to bridge the gap between the internal-combustion engine and pure electric power.