The Toyota Prius hybrid might do it for Leonardo DiCaprio and Cameron Diaz in Hollywood, but it's not going to fly with the wide array of Americans, from NFL players to PTA members, looking for something bigger and badder. And that's the riddle of the alternative-fuel auto marketplace: we are not a one-size-fits-all culture—as the tattoo community knows quite well.
Getting into the game early with passion and innovation—and two generations of the Synergy Drive gas-electric power plant system—Toyota has seized the lion's share of publicity and sales in the now mercilessly fashionable hybrid movement. In the early part of this decade, Toyota continued fiddling while other carmakers burned. Even Honda, in a rare show of business and technological ineptitude, bobbled the hybrid initiative after its first-to-market 1999 Insight was deemed too weird-looking for people to buy. And its second-generation hybrid system, introduced just a few years ago, drew raspberries from the eco peanut gallery when it produced stirring power and performance but not much in the way of fuel savings.
Still, despite Toyota's success, the evolution of the hybrid has been complicated by several factors. First, there is the horsepower sweepstakes: The only way to up the ante in luxury and performance cars is to offer stats north of 300 hp. Though real off-road vehicles actually do better with smaller, more-efficient engines, urban road warriors demand SUVs with enough power to accelerate 5,000 pounds plus at sports car speeds. And the U.S. demand for light trucks (including pickups and SUVs) peaked at 55.7 percent of vehicle sales in 2004 and still constitutes the largest segment of the overall automotive market. These facts are evidence that changing the habits of a nation weaned on wide-open spaces, both outside and inside its automotive transport, is going to be very hard.
But that doesn't mean it will be impossible. Buyers who want to be conspicuous in their lesser consumption—without giving up beauty and grace—are falling for the exquisite Lexus LS600h, which has EPA ratings of 20 mpg in the city and 22 mpg on the highway. It's no Prius, but to its credit, the hybrid Lexus flagship is still the only car in its super-luxe class that qualifies as a Super Ultra Low Emissions Vehicle (SULEV).
Not to be outdone, GM, Daimler/Chrysler, and BMW decided a few years ago to get into the game. Though the companies' executives may once have grumbled that the hybrid fad was a cruel but brilliant marketing trick by Toyota, they eventually banded together, forming an unlikely troika (now a foursome because of the breakup of Daimler and Chrysler) whose goal was to create a new hybrid system that would challenge Toyota.
The thesis of the GM, Daimler, Chrysler, and BMW approach is that customers want to reduce their fuel consumption, not the size and power of their vehicles. And while the Toyota hybrid synergy drive system turns excellent fuel savings with the Prius, and even the small crossover Highlander, the same system on larger vehicles has had mixed results.