New Hybrid Cars - Hybrid Nation

Automobile Magazine Staff
Tim Marrs

At the Detroit auto show in January, we'll see the third generation of the now one-million-plus-selling Prius, which will still use a nickel-metal-hydride battery pack. A more expensive version, with a lithium-ion battery pack, arrives a year later, and Toyota already has announced that it will offer solar panels on the car's roof. In 2011, a plug-in model becomes available. Don't look for a big design change for the new Prius, as Toyota is sticking with the peaked roof and hatchback layout, a unique design that broadcasts the driver's green credentials. Another reason to preserve the shape is that the Japanese believe the Prius has Porsche 911-like icon potential.

What remains to be seen is how Toyota will incorporate the Prius look into two additional variants, a five-seat crossover due in 2010 and a seven-seater planned for 2011. Toyota will hybridize many more models, including the Sienna minivan, the new Venza crossover, the Corolla (all by 2012), and the next-generation RAV4 (2013). In fact, by 2020, all Toyota models are scheduled to be available in hybrid form.

At this month's Los Angeles auto show, we expect Lexus to unveil the next-generation RX450h, which likely will be sleeker and roomier but also lighter and better to drive than the current high-luxe crossover hybrid. The big news in Lexus hybrids, however, happens in Detroit, where the brand will reveal its first dedicated hybrid model, one that will emphasize fuel economy rather than performance. The small four-door hatchback will use a 2.5-liter four-cylinder engine instead of a V-6. The design is said to be derived from the Toyota Hybrid X show car.

The 2000 Honda Insight was the first hybrid sold in America, but the tiny two-seater, which ended production in 2006, never caught on with the public when it was new. Now, though, used Insights are hot commodities, with values jumping and even dedicated Insight resellers emerging. So Honda will capitalize on the renewed value of the Insight name by using it for the company's new, hybrid-only Prius-fighter, which premiered at the Paris show and will go on sale in April '09. Honda plans to fill 100,000 North American orders annually. The four-door hatchback will be smaller than the Civic and less expensive than the Civic Hybrid (which costs $24,220 and will continue to be built) and the $22,720 Toyota Prius.

Honda also is working on a second dedicated hybrid model, a sporty two-seat (or possibly two-plus-two) hatch that revives the spirit of the Honda CRX. Previewed last year by the CR-Z show car, this hybrid funster is expected to go on sale as a 2011 model. Finally, Honda is working on a hybrid version of its wildly popular entry-level Fit, which would join the family in 2011 or 2012.

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