Ford and Toyota Roll Out 'Green' SUVs

DETROIT -- Can the sport utility vehicle, the b?te noire of environmental advocates, be reinvented as a green machine?

This year, Ford and Toyota plan to sell the first two hybrid sport utility vehicles. With carlike mileage expected, the advent of the hybrid SUV may change the uniformly visceral antipathy to sport utility vehicles among environmental advocates, even if automakers are unlikely to sell enough hybrids to significantly reduce fuel consumption or pollution any time soon.

"I would definitely encourage people who need four-wheel-drive vehicles to look at these," said the Reverend Jim Ball, the president of the Evangelical Environmental Network, a small group that sponsored a widely publicized grass-roots campaign called "What Would Jesus Drive?"

"These vehicles are one small step," he added, "but we've got a long way to go here."

The Toyota and Ford hybrids, which will be 2005 models, supplement the internal combustion engine with an electric motor that takes over at slow speeds and at stoplights, a switch that they say can help SUVs get 11 to 17 kilometers per liter.

The Ford Motor Co. is scheduled to introduce the first of the hybrids, a version of its Escape sport utility, by the end of summer. In November or December, Toyota will follow with a hybrid version of its Lexus RX330 sport utility, the RX400h. It plans to introduce a hybrid version of its Highlander SUV early next year. The hybrid versions will be more expensive than the conventional models, though neither company has yet said by how much.

From a consumer's perspective, hybrids are not much different from conventional cars. They run on regular gasoline, and the batteries for their electric motors are recharged as they drive, so they do not need to be plugged in. One consideration is that battery, which would be costly to replace if it were to fail. Most, however, are under warranty for at least eight years.

Because the biggest gas savings occur at slow speeds, hybrids sometimes disappoint customers who spend much of their time on highways.

That is borne out in Ford's projections for the Escape hybrid: The front-wheel-drive version will average about twice the mileage per liter than the Escape, which runs on gasoline only. In highway driving, however, the Escape hybrid will do about 20 percent better than the gasoline version.

Environmental advocates frustrated by the long-swelling appetite for gas have embraced hybrids. Booming sales of sport utility vehicles and big pickup trucks, coupled with increasing horsepower for vehicles big and small, have stalled advances in overall fuel efficiency.

In the 2002 model year, the fuel economy of the average new light-duty vehicle sold in the United States sank to its lowest point in more than two decades, according to the Environmental Protection Agency. That data understates the mileage gap, because the heaviest sport utilities with the worst fuel economy, like Hummers and Ford Excursions, are not counted. They are so big that they do not fit the definition of a passenger vehicle.

SUVs have also been widely criticized as unsafe. Because they are heavy and have high ground clearance, they are typically less stable and can inflict more damage on passenger cars in collisions than other cars do. These problems are being addressed to varying degrees by the industry -- the Lexus SUV, for example, comes with electronic suspension-control technology that is intended to reduce rollover risk.

"We fight SUVs because it is irresponsible to make vehicles that guzzle, pollute and are unsafe," said Dan Becker, a global warming specialist at the Sierra Club. "But the auto companies have the technology to fix these problems, and if they do, acceptance of SUVs will improve."

So far, hybrids have not made much of a dent in fuel economy trends. For several years, Toyota and Honda have been the only automakers selling hybrids, and they sell just tens of thousands in the United States, a country with annual sales of 17 million vehicles. Toyota, however, has said it plans to be selling 2 million hybrids per year, worldwide, in a decade. The company now sells only the Prius in the United States.

By 2015, 60 percent of the vehicles sold nationwide would have to be hybrids just to stop the growth of automotive global warming emissions beyond levels expected at the end of this decade. That is according to a projection by David Friedman, research director for the clean vehicles program at the Union of Concerned Scientists, an environmental research and advocacy group in Cambridge, Massachusetts.

Financial analysts have estimated that hybrids are more likely to account for as much as 10 percent to 15 percent of the market over the next decade or so.

"If hybrids just end up as a niche vehicle," Mr. Friedman said, "they really won't have an impact on the environment and global warming. Millions of these vehicles have to be sold every year."