Thursday, June 17, 2004

Hybrid Fever
There were two good articles on the prospects for hybrid cars in the last week. In the Sunday Style section, the New York Times covered some of the sociology of hybrids, for example the desire to be the first on your block with something new. The Financial Times looked at the introduction of the first hybrid SUV, the Ford Escape Hybrid, and focused on the benefits of stressing performance, rather than just fuel economy, to American consumers.

It's worth thinking about performance and what that really means to the average driver. Although carmakers have stressed horsepower as the key measure of a car’s performance, this indicator of maximum engine output isn’t that useful in assessing what most people are really interested in, namely good acceleration. That has more to do with torque, and electric motors are wonderful at providing lots of torque without the time lags associated with internal combustion engines. So hybrids can effectively deliver six-cylinder performance, but with four-cylinder economy, or better.

As the FT points out, this advantage erodes in sustained high-speed driving, where horsepower matters more, especially when towing. It will be interesting to see whether hybrids—as presently configured—meet the needs of the average motorist, or only of those seeking excellent gas mileage and low environmental impacts. Personally, I'm waiting for a hybrid sports sedan that gets 30 mpg and does 0-60 in under 7 seconds.

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