Saturn Vue Green Line: hybrid for tightwads

With its first mass-market hybrid, GM emphasized cost savings. That may be just what the market needs.

By Peter Valdes-Dapena, staff writer.

NEW YORK ( - In creating its first gas-saving for the mass market, General Motors took the cheap way out. This time, it could prove to be a very smart move.

The fact is, s just aren't selling like they used to. While the Toyota Prius is still a hot item, Ford is offering incentives on its s, and sales for other hybrid vehicles are softening.

One reason is that most hybrids, unlike the Prius, are not distinctive. A Toyota Highlander Hybrid looks like a Toyota Highlander. A Ford Escape Hybrid is a Ford Escape. "So the hybrid becomes another powertrain option," said Anthony Pratt, an analyst with J.D. Power and Associates.

That means that consumers are increasingly putting hybrid systems through the same cost/benefit analysis to which they would subject any other high-cost option.

For consumers simply looking to save money in the face of rising gasoline prices, it makes more sense to purchase a fuel-efficient vehicle that doesn't rely on hybrid technology. Hybrid versions of vehicles usually cost about $3,500 to nearly $8,000 more than non-hybrid versions. Part of that cost is for unrelated options that usually come as part of a hybrid package that you might not even want - third row seats, leather interior, wood grain veneer.

Another answer might be to buy a vehicle with a less complex, less expensive hybrid system. It might not be quite as fuel-efficient but it will pay for itself faster.

The Saturn Vue Green Line hybrid SUV, coming out this summer, will cost about $2,000 more than a regular Saturn Vue. Its sticker price will be about $23,000, making it the cheapest hybrid SUV you can buy.

"A total price in the low $20,000 range, I think, opens the door to the mass market," said Jesse Toprak, executive director of industry analysis for

The uses a system that relies on lower voltage than other hybrids. That means, for one thing, that the Vue Green Line doesn't need nearly as large of a battery pack. Batteries cost money and add weight. It also made the Vue's hybrid system easier to integrate into a normal automotive electrical system which, again, means lower cost.

But the Vue Green Line's electric motor can't actually drive the vehicle on its own even at low speeds, the way, for example, a Ford Escape Hybrid's can. In all hybrid vehicles, the gasoline engine automatically shuts off as soon as the vehicle stops moving even at stop signs and red lights. That saves all the gas wasted in pointless idling.

But, once the vehicle gets going again, the can crawl through city traffic without starting its gasoline engine at all, at least until the battery needs recharging. In the Vue Green Line, however, the gasoline engine starts running the moment the driver's foot lifts off the brake pedal. The electric motor in the Vue assists the gasoline engine in propelling the vehicle but it is too weak to do much on its own.

Instead of having a high-efficiency continuously variable transmission, as other hybrid vehicles do, the Vue Greenline has the same four-speed transmission as the regular Vue. Again, the slight gain in efficiency that would have come from a CVT wasn't worth the added cost.

Some hard-core hybrid fans may look askance at the Vue's low-cost hybrid compromise. It does save gas, but not huge amounts. GM claims the Vue Green Line will get 20 percent better fuel economy than the a regular 4-cylinder Saturn Vue SUV.

Since the Vue is already a relatively efficient SUV, 20 percent means five miles per gallon. Overall, its estimated mileage is a little less than a Ford Escape Hybrid or , but the Vue Green Line will also cost thousands less than those SUVs.

The Vue Green Line's hybrid system may be the right way for GM to crank up its hybrid vehicle portfolio but it will still face serious hurdles with buyers. For one thing, it's a Saturn Vue. The Vue has not been treated nicely by Consumer Reports, an influential source for car shoppers, which gives it "Much lower than average" marks for predicted reliability and has little good to say about it otherwise. (Despite the criticism, the regular Vue has been selling about as well as the average mid-sized SUV, though, according to

Also, Toprak of points out, the Vue Green Line will be available in two-wheel-drive only, eliminating a big reason many buyers opt for an SUV to begin with.

In creating a cheaper way to make small hybrid vehicles, GM has taken an important step toward making the technology truly mainstream. Now the trick will be to build a really compelling vehicle around this new powertrain. As gas prices rise, a cheap, efficient vehicle that's genuinely good is something that car buyers will really have an appetite for.

Hybrids: Don't buy the hype

Sure, hybrids save gas but they won't save you money. There are smarter ways to go.

By Peter Valdes-Dapena, CNN/Money staff writer

NEW YORK - Toyota is now measuring "time on the lot" for the Toyota Prius in hours, not days. The average Prius goes unsold for only about 20 hours after it hits a Toyota dealer's lot, according to a recent report.

With gasoline prices now around $3 a gallon, you might think it makes a lot of sense that hybrid cars are hot sellers.

Actually, it doesn't -- at least not a lot of financial sense.

They may make a social statement you're interested in, but if you want to save money because of rising gas prices, you're heading down the wrong road, at least for now.

Some simple calculations by our partners at revealed the following:

A hybrid Honda Accord costs about $3,800 more than the comparable non-hybrid version, including purchase, maintenance and insurance costs. Over five years, assuming 15,000 miles of driving per year, you'll make up that cost in gasoline money if the price of gas goes up immediately to $9.20 a gallon and averages that for the whole period.

For the Ford Escape hybrid, the difference is less stark. To make up the difference over five years between the Escape hybrid and a Ford Escape XLT, gas prices would have to average $5.60 after you purchase the vehicle.

The Prius itself, however, could be an exception. There is no such thing as a non-hybrid Prius, making a direct comparison impossible. Compared to a Toyota Camry, a car with similar interior space which costs about $100 more over five years, the Prius driver could actually save a small amount of money.

There is a tax deduction of $2,000 available for purchasing a hybrid vehicle, but that translates to a one-time tax savings of less than $500 for most buyers. That's nice, but it's not enough to make much of a difference in the long run.

The recently passed energy bill includes a tax credit that would range from $500 up to $3,400, depending on the fuel efficiency of the car, for vehicles purchased after Jan 1., 2006. The credit could be enough to create some real savings. For example, Ford estimates the tax credit on a Ford Escape hybrid to be $2,600.

The new rules are extremely confusing, though, said David Mellem of Ashwaubenon Tax Professionals in Wisconsin, and the IRS hasn't yet published an official list of what vehicles will qualify for what sort of tax credit.

Certainly, though, most car buyers who are considering a hybrid will be far better off waiting until 2006 to make that purchase, said Mellem.

In the meantime, there are other ways to save gas that won't cost you any extra money.

Drive more gently

First, change the way you drive. There's no trophy for being first to arrive at the red light, or beating everyone away from the green. In driving tests by, simply going easy on the gas and brake pedals garnered gas mileage improvements of about thirty percent. Hybrid buyers pay thousands for that kind of savings.

Check out diesels

Second, consider buying diesel. Diesel cars cost only a little more than gasoline-powered cars, but they get far better fuel mileage. Also, because their engines are more durable, diesels have better resale value than gasoline-powered cars. That alone should be enough to make up any additional cost of the vehicle, leaving the gas-money savings in your pocket. Also, diesels will qualify for tax credits under the new tax rules. Again, diesel buyers might want to wait until next year to buy.

Shop smarter

Third, look more closely at the actual fuel economy numbers when you buy and consider what you're willing to give up. The promise of hybrids is better fuel economy with the same, or more, engine power. But, for that, you pay more for the complex technology and, to date, long-term resale value is unknown.

You could simply decide that you could do with less engine power or a smaller, lighter vehicle. That way you could get better fuel economy while paying even less money for the vehicle itself. And you don't have to buy a subcompact.

For example, an two-wheel-drive Ford Escape hybrid has a sticker price of about $26,900 and gets an EPA-estimated 33 miles per gallon in combined city and highway driving.

A Ford Focus wagon gets an EPA-estimated 28 mpg in combined driving but it costs about $10,000 less. With the Focus you get about same amount of interior space for passengers and even more cargo room.

Also, you'll have a much easier time negotiating a good price on the Focus wagon than you will on the Escape hybrid, which typically sells at full sticker price.

There are, of course, an endless number of similar comparisons out there. The point is, don't just get sucked into the hype. If what's really important to you is saving on fuel, do a little thinking before you buy. There are lots of options available.

Source: CNN Money

Survey: Consumers skeptical of hybrids

Cost of servicing hybrid system, and its lifetime performance among consumers' main concerns.

NEW YORK - Wary of purchasing that even though gas prices are pinching your wallet?

You're not alone.

According to a survey released Thursday, a majority of consumers are skeptical of even though they feel that hybrid vehicles, which use electric motors in addition to gasoline engines, are likely the future for the American automobile.

In an online survey, conducted by Kelley Blue Book, more than half of 425 individuals polled said they are not interested in purchasing a hybrid or said that they needed more information about the technology.

"Although they've been hyped in the media, the average consumer still questions whether hybrids are for them," says Jack Nerad the editorial director and executive market analyst for Kelley Blue Book. "Based on the results of this study, it seems the auto manufacturers still have work to do before alleviating consumer concerns about the long-term viability of current hybrid technology."

The two most important causes of consumer skepticism, according to the survey, were the potential costs of servicing a hybrid vehicle and maintenance over its lifetime.

Sixty-one percent of consumers said they were worried about the servicing costs to fix a , while 55 percent of those polled expressed concern about the longevity of the battery pack.

Taking a back seat to maintenance concerns were worries about driving performance or delivering the promised level of fuel efficiency.

At the same time, consumers are optimistic about the future of hybrid technology.

More than half of those polled said that in five to ten years, hybrid cars will be able to deliver the same performance as a gasoline engine, while 36 percent said that they believe that hybrid engines will take over the automobile market in that time.

A third of those surveyed maintain that today's gasoline engine will continue to be the engine of choice for automakers.

While consumers typically pay more for a hybrid car than its gasoline counterparts, the Kelley Blue Book survey learned that of those individuals who would consider purchasing a hybrid, they are willing to pay, on average, $2,355 more to own one.

Source: CNN Money

Green cars starting to take root

Demand for hybrid market expanding

From CNN's Phil O'Sullivan

TOKYO, Japan (CNN) -- Environmentally friendly are finally being mass-produced -- thanks to an increase in demand due to rising fuel costs, cheaper technology and growing public acceptance.

Viewed in the industry as the most important innovation since automatic transmission or the self-starting motor, run on two power sources: a standard combustion engine, backed up by an electric battery.

Japanese car makers Toyota and Honda have both been producing hybrid cars since the late 1990s.

(Picture Below: The waiting list for the Toyota Prius is months long in the U.S.)

And while hybrids still make up a fraction of all vehicles manufactured, the two automakers look set to put the latest eco-friendly technology up against each other, as the hybrid vehicle becomes accepted by the masses.

Toyota's hybrid sedan, the first mass-produced environmentally friendly vehicle, is so popular that waiting lists in the U.S. are months long.

It is so high-tech, it can even park itself.

Toyota spokesman Paul Nolasco said s were becoming increasingly popular among consumers.

"This car is not a science experiment. It's a real car -- it's very practical -- that you can use in daily life," he told CNN.

Honda has also joined the hybrid party, with the and a V6 version of its popular Accord car. Ford has come out with a hybrid version of its SUV Escape.

Honda spokesman David Iida said these vehicles were good news for the environment.

"Basically, Honda's philosophy is to introduce environmentally friendly technologies in cars that are mass-produced. That way we can get the biggest effect on the environment as quickly as possible," he said.

Iida said that hybrid vehicles were paving the way for more advanced environmentally friendly technology.

"In the future we see this (hybrid cars) as an interim technology. In the future -- long-term -- fuel cells (may be) the best alternative."

The combustion engine in hybrids kicks in only when required, at higher speeds, for example. When the vehicle is stationary at lights or stuck in traffic jams, the combustion engine is less likely to be running, which means less fuel use, and no polluting emissions.

There is no need to recharge the car's battery; it is replenished by the engine or from energy created by friction from the car's brakes.

Kurt Sanger, auto analyst at Macquarie Securities, said the production of hybrids was still in its infancy.

"Volume-wise, you're seeing maybe 4,000 (or) 5,000 Prius a month in the U.S., versus 25-30,000 Camrys."

Toyota will begin producing Prius vehicles in China -- an important market for the car industry -- next year. Greater volumes will eventually mean lower prices.