Monitor test-drives new gas-electric hybrids from Honda and Toyota

The first two gasoline-electric hybrid vehicles, leading the way toward all vehicles becoming cleaner and more efficient, are on the road today.

The two-seat Honda Insight has been sold in the US since December. And the Toyota Prius sedan has been plying Japanese roads for almost two years, and has been so popular there that Toyota won't have enough cars to sell here until fall. (Last week, Nissan also announced a new hybrid, so far just for Japan.)

All three are "parallel hybrids." That is, the gasoline engine drives the wheels mechanically, while the electric motor assists. That way they can use much smaller, more efficient gasoline engines than would be needed to provide good acceleration - the electric-assist making up the difference. And they require much smaller, lighter packs of expensive batteries than purely electric vehicles, saving weight and cost.

The hybrid drivetrains also boost fuel economy with "regenerative braking" - recapturing otherwise wasted braking energy by using the electric motor to divert it to the batteries.

Another advantage: The gas engines can shut off at stoplights or in traffic, cutting emissions even further. These hybrids never have to be plugged in; their engines recharge the batteries.

Unfortunately both are somewhat cramped, underpowered, and pricey for their size. The Insight sells for $18,880. The Prius is expected to command more than $20,000.

But beyond price, many wonder if they really are all-benefit, no-sacrifice cars or just oddities.

The Insight is a state-of-the art gasoline economy car. But claiming it's the first hybrid on the US market rings hollow since its electric aspects make a negligible difference in how the car runs.

Because the electric motor is "upstream" of the clutch and you have to step on the clutch to stop, the regenerative braking system almost never recharges the batteries. And the three-horsepower electric motor is so small that there's no discernable difference in acceleration, even when the dashboard meter says the motor is giving its all.

Worse, while the Insight provides an "auto-stop" setting, which allows the gasoline engine to shut down when the transmission is in neutral at stops, it rarely works. In a Monitor test, the engine refused to shut down even after 20 miles of stop-and-go driving on chilly winter mornings. On warmer evenings, though, the system worked fine after a 3-to-4 mile warm-up.

On the plus side, the car uses a more-advanced body, made of aluminum, and sets a new record for reducing aerodynamic drag. Yet it is hampered in the market by having only two seats and, so far, only a stick shift.

Toyota's Prius is a more practical five-seat sedan. It's smaller (but taller) than Toyota's popular Corolla and offers nearly as much passenger room, as well as a relatively roomy trunk.

The hybrid drivetrain also represents genuine progress. It uses a special automatic transmission that allows the gas engine to start and stop any time. In rush-hour gridlock, it regularly shuts off and the car starts moving again on just electric power. Even in 30-mile per hour traffic, the car can run as a straight electric, saving fuel and reducing pollution. And the batteries recharge every time you step on the brake.

Both cars are fairly easy to drive, but the technology is not yet completely "transparent." One test crew from Auto Week magazine, for instance, failed in an attempt to drive a Prius up 6,800 foot Mt. Washington, in New Hampshire, because it didn't know the transmission needed to be in a special mode for hill-climbing. And the Insight won't shut off its engine in traffic unless the air conditioner is in a special setting.

These cars hold some appeal as second vehicles. But few will accept them as their only transportation, mainly because of their size.

Consumers are also concerned about reliability and maintaining two powertrains, says Thad Malesh, a consumer researcher with J.D. Power and Associates, a marketing research firm in Agoura Hills, Calif.

(c) Copyright 2000. The Christian Science Publishing Society

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