Hybrid Car Review

story and photos by John Bolivar
first appeared in Canoe & Kayak March 07

So C&K took a hard look at hybrid cars, and discovered they’ve come a long way since first hitting American showrooms in 1999. The latest offerings are roomier, more powerful, and far more stylish than ever before.



Hybrids use both gas and electric motors to maximize efficiency. They generate electric power when braking and coasting, store it in batteries, and then send it to the wheels when the gas genny doesn’t have the horses to get over the next hill, or around that jackass in the armor-plated Navigator. The result is up to 60 miles from a gallon of gas and as little as one-tenth the volume of harmful emissions most new vehicles cough into the air.


If it sounds like you’ve found your dream shuttle vehicle, don’t be taken aback by the $30,000 price tag—with ever-rising fuel costs around the world, you could save $500 on gas annually, and send the tax man up to $3,400 less on April 15.


Hybrids come in two broad categories. Full hybrids run on electricity with a little help from a gas engine; partial hybrids run on internal combustion with an electric assist. This month we bring you four new rides that help you sync up your paddling yen with a desire to protect the natural world you go out there to enjoy in the first place.


TOYOTA PRIUS


• LIST PRICE: $22,175 • MPG (highway/city): 60/51
• 4WD/AWD: No • FACTORY RACK: Yes


Twiggy drives a Prius, but you don’t have to be model thin to fit into one.


This proven model—the Prius debuted in 1997 in Japan and 2000 in the United States—is surprisingly roomy inside, but small enough to sneak into parking places SUVs can only dream about. The front doors open wide, allowing our lifevest-clad kids to clamber right in, and this mid-sized hatchback swallowed all our paddling gear with room to spare.


With boats resting against stacker bars or the side-loading after-market boat racks, we had plenty of clearance to open the trunk – key for those of us who chronically keep a collection of boats strapped to the roof. The Prius handles like a champ on pavement, but with just over four inches of ground clearance, expect anything larger than a softball to spank your oilpan when going off road.


Its zippy four-cylinder, 1.5-liter gas engine and noiseless electric motor combine to produce a respectable 110 horsepower. Just like my ’73 VW Beetle, the Prius engine cuts off when I come to a stop, but unlike my Bug, the Prius is designed to shift to silent electrical mode when the gas power plant isn’t needed.


That hi-tech approach is complimented by an LCD dash monitor would make Knight Rider jealous–its touch screen literally puts functions like climate control and optional GPS navigation at your fingertips, and also tracks battery life and fuel consumption. A rear-mounted video camera shows what’s behind the car when backing up. The EPA’s estimated 55 miles per gallon is wishful thinking at best, but even with a bulky kayak on top we averaged close to 45 mpg. And the Prius’ emissions record is clean enough to make any Sierra Clubber think about trading in his bike—it spews about 90 percent fewer emissions than the average car.


UPSIDE: Forty five miles per gallon. ’Nuff said.
DOWNSIDE: Visibility—an annoying rear spoiler cuts into the view of an already-small rear window—and no tow hooks to tie a bow or stern line.


MERCURY MARINER



• LIST PRICE: $29,840 • MPG (highway/city): 33/29
• 4WD/AWD: “Intelligent 4WD” standard • FACTORY RACK: Yes


Small but mighty, the Mariner looks just like the gas version save a few inconspicuous nameplates. Built on an upscale version of the Ford Escape chassis, the Mariner is a full hybrid– it can run on electrical power alone for short distances. The engine shuts off when the car comes to a stop and starts up smoothly on acceleration.


It has a four-cylinder gas engine and two battery-powered electric motors that give it similar power to the gas version (155 ponies from the 2.3-liter gas-burner and twin electric motors) while consuming a fraction of the fuel. The Mariner’s full-time “Intelligent 4WD System” automatically shifts power to rear wheels when needed. While this isn’t ideal for serious off-roading, eight inches of ground clearance will get you down at least the Class III shuttle roads.


The smaller frame avoids the standard SUV parking nightmare. The LCD-based information system is kind of lame—you have to squint to read anything on the tiny four-inch display and the optional navigation system is slow and not particularly accurate.


The boater-friendly rear hatch is large enough, and the glass opens separately from the back door so you can reach in and grab gear from the back without taking boats down or untying stern lines. The factory roof rack accepts Thule or Yakima towers.


UPSIDE: Best ground clearance and full-hybrid SUV performance in the group.


DOWNSIDE: The self-locking doors drove testers crazy—they lock automatically whenever you put the car in gear. “I felt like my Mom was yelling at me to ‘lock the doors’ every time I drove off,” one tester griped.




TOYOTA
HIGHLANDER


• LIST PRICE: $32,490 • MPG (highway/city): 32/27
• 4WD/AWD: standard • FACTORY RACK: Yes



Though classified as a mid-size SUV, Toyota’s Highlander is no off-road dirt-chomping beast. Sitting a paltry seven inches off the ground, it’s more of an all-wheel drive ride that handles well in the snow and can take on moderately bumpy shuttle roads.


Its full-time all-wheel-drive system sends power to the rear wheels when the uber-intelligent onboard computer detects wheel slip in the front. Without the tiny logo touting Toyotas’s Hybrid Synergy Drive, you wouldn’t know this fuel-efficient SUV from its gas-guzzling evil twin.


Toyota chose to add hybrid power to its proven Highlander model rather than designing a vehicle around hybrid technology as it did with the Prius. The Highlander gets good-for-a-big-SUV mileage but with fewer smog-inducing emissions–great news for a seven-passenger vehicle.


The Highlander comes with a 3.3-liter, 268-horsepower V6 engine that’s fast enough to make a speedtrap cop salivate, augmented with a pair of electric motors. Together, the three plants generate enough power to haul a 3,500-pound trailer. And the two rows of rear seats fold flat, creating an insane amount of storage space.


UPSIDE: The big center-panel LCD screen supports jet-fighter-pilot fantasies, as well as operating the optional GPS navigation system and displaying fuel economy in a series of graphs and animated power flow charts that require an engineering degree to decode.


DOWNSIDE: Even Toyota admits the Highlander Hybrid “is not designed to be driven off-road.”


SATURN VUE HYBRID



• LIST PRICE: $22,995 • MPG (highway/city): 32/27 • 4WD/AWD: No
• FACTORY RACK: Optional, with additional canoe and kayak attachments


The mid-sized Saturn Vue is GM’s first hybrid vehicle, built on a chassis somewhere between a hatchback and an SUV design. Under the hood it’s what GM calls a ‘light’ hybrid—the electric motor occasionally assists a gas engine, but cannot power the car by itself—and the Vue is only modestly more efficient than gas-only models.


Saturn designers clearly emphasized comfort over off-road capability. The cockpit is small, though well-appointed, in contrast to the fairly spacious back seats and ample cargo area. Lacking are the techy LCD monitors in the other hybrids we tested. No graphic interface displaying mileage or the status of the hybrid batteries; only a simple gauge telling you if the battery is charging and a little green light to tell you when the car is exceeding its EPA ratings, which are about 20 percent better than the gas-only Vue.


Powered by a rather unenthusiastic (read: wimpy) 2.4-liter four-cylinder gas engine and assisted by a belt-driven electric motor (read: souped-up vacuum cleaner), the Vue does capture energy during braking and engine coasting. This bare-bones system keeps costs down, making the Vue the cheapest hybrid SUV on the market.


UPSIDE: The rear bumper has a handy rubber step to help vertically-challenged paddlers tie down boats, and the seats fold down to reveal a flat, eight-foot-long storage area. The Vue also features a power outlet—so you won’t have to beg commercial guides to inflate your raft.


DOWNSIDE: Better keep your AAA membership up to date—the battery pack takes up the spare tire compartment. At least there is an inflator kit in case of a flat.

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