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Tokyo Auto Show: Why Hybrids Are Hot

A combination of rising fuel costs and technological breakthroughs is changing the family car. Photo: Mazda Premacy 'tribrid'.

Published: 25-Oct-2005

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Are you ready for the tribrid? Or the mibrid? Or the hydrobrid? The hybrid engine has already changed the automobile industry with its accelerating popularity. And it has also set off an arms race among manufacturers as they try to get their hands on the most advanced hybrid engine technology—and the people who can design it.

The Tokyo Motor Show produced some fascinating variations on the hybrid theme, among them the Mercedes "Bluetec Hybrid" concept vehicle. This vehicle is a diesel-electric engine known as a "mild" hybrid, because it's a scaled-down version. The diesel engine stops when idle and the electric motor boosts acceleration, but unlike full hybrids (such as Toyota's Prius), this vehicle can't run on the electric motor alone. The mibrid is cheaper to make and has a small battery, which lightens the load. And diesel makes it more fuel efficient than a regular gasoline hybrid. Mercedes' parent company, DaimlerChrysler, says that its diesel hybrid is 10% to 15% more fuel efficient than a full gasoline hybrid. The company says it is "close to market" with the new vehicle. BMW is closer. The Bavarian company says it plans to introduce a type of mild hybrid system next year, and may extend it to the entire product line. Next up is General Motors, which plans to roll out a hybrid version of the Saturn Vue next summer and offer hybrid versions of lumbering sport-utility vehicles such as the Chevrolet Suburban by 2007. Volkswagen and Porsche also have announced plans to introduce hybrids before the end of the decade.

One of the niftiest new hybrids is from Mazda, the Premacy Hydrogen RE Hybrid concept car. This "tribrid" has three energy sources--gasoline, electricity and hydrogen. The main combustion engine can burn either gasoline or hydrogen, which is fed to the engine from a tank in the trunk. The driver can change between the two by hitting a switch next to the steering wheel. Hydrogen as a fuel burns like gasoline, but it's about 10% more efficient, and emits only water. Throw in the hybrid function (an electric motor) and fuel efficiency rises again. Mazda hopes to have the car available in three years. In the meantime, Mazda plans to introduce a duel-fuel RX-8 sports car on a limited basis next spring.

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