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Phelan: Technologies in hybrids spreading to all cars

| Saturday, July 16, 2011

Your next car will probably have a little bit of Toyota Prius or Chevrolet Volt in it, whether you think of yourself as a high-tech fuel saver or not.

Technologies pioneered by the 50-mpg Prius and the Volt, which burns no gasoline at all on most trips under 40 miles, will soon be omnipresent.

Virtually every car will be a hybrid, with so many variations of electric-assistance that some manufacturers won't even use the word.

It's a challenge for automakers. They're struggling with how to tell buyers about the new features, which will increase fuel economy in a variety of ways.

"Customers think 'hybrid' means the Prius," a car mostly powered by gasoline but capable of driving on battery power alone for short distances at low speeds, said Jim Hall, managing director of 2953 Analytics. "That's very simplistic."

Technology that uses electricity to reduce petroleum consumption can already be found in everything from the battery-powered Nissan Leaf to the 414-horsepower twin-turbo BMW M3's automated stop-start system.

The number of vehicles with some degree of electrification will jump from five in 2008 to 116 by the end of 2011, David Vieau, president and CEO of battery maker A123 Systems, told the Detroit Economic Club last week.

That's just the start.

"It could become tough to find a car without electric augmentation in seven or eight years," Hall said.

Lincoln took a major step in the mass-marketing of hybrids when it made a 41-mpg-in-the-city hybrid the base model of its MKZ sedan.

Many upcoming vehicles using electrification won't call themselves hybrids. They'll promise better fuel economy or performance without getting into nuts-and-bolts tech talk most people don't care about.

Buick and Chevrolet are prime examples. The base 2012 Buick LaCrosse will promise 36 mpg on the highway and 25 in the city for less than $30,000, thanks to an electric system Buick calls eAssist. The 2012 Buick Regal midsize sedan aims to use eAssist for EPA ratings of 37 mpg on the highway and 26 in the city.

The 2013 Chevrolet Malibu midsize sedan's Eco model will have the same system when it goes on sale early next year.

They won't wear "hybrid" badges, but they wouldn't exist without systems they share with high-profile hybrid and electric cars.

Hybrid technology has become an enabler, a means to an end -- lower fuel consumption.

"The manufacturers will talk about what the customer cares about, either the technology or the fuel economy," Hall says. That means models like the Toyota Prius will continue to headline the word hybrid, while others will talk dollars and cents gas mileage.

For a final confirmation hybrid tech has gone completely mainstream -- or a sign the apocalypse is upon us, depending on your point of view -- Toyota Racing Development, the rogues responsible for the company's 680-horsepower V8 NASCAR engine, have built a performance package for the Prius. It doesn't add any power to the Prius, but includes a ground-effects kit, 17-inch forged alloy wheels, low-profile tires, faster steering and a lower ride height.

Electrification is putting a charge into everyday vehicles.

phelan@freepress.com

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