Archive for Thursday, December 8, 2005

Ford goes green with hybrid SUV

December 8, 2005

The recipient of the Sierra Club's "Exxon Valdez Environmental Achievement Award" for environmental destruction is attempting a green makeover.

The environmental organization gave the ironic award to Ford Motor Company in 1999 for its behemoth, gas-guzzling Excursion sport utility vehicle. Ford stopped the vehicle's production Sept. 30 because of poor sales and is trying to drive its reputation in a different direction with the unveiling of a new hybrid sport utility vehicle.

Last month, the Ford Assembly Plant in Claycomo, Mo., officially launched full production of the Mercury Mariner Hybrid SUV. The vehicle will be produced on the same line that makes the regular version of the SUV, and Ford hopes to sell 4,000 of the vehicles a year. By 2010, the company hopes to sell 250,000 hybrids a year.

The plant has been producing the Mariner hybrid since July, with 500 sold since then.

According to literature distributed by Ford, the vehicle uses an internal combustion engine married to an electric motor that recharges every time the brakes are applied. The gas motor shuts off when the car is at a standstill or slow speeds, when the 70-kilowatt electric motor takes over.

The two motors work together at high speeds and during rapid acceleration for a combined horsepower output of 155 and give the car city gas mileage of 33 miles per gallon and highway mileage of 31 mpg for the four-wheel drive model.

With any luck, Ford's new hybrid will help it avoid the recent fate of another domestic automaker, General Motors, which last week announced layoffs of 30,000 workers in the next three years. Some industry analysts blame GM's woes on a lack of appealing products and too much reliance on gas-guzzling SUVs. In another Lansing, the capital of Michigan, some 1,600 auto workers will lose their jobs when two GM plants there close.

The question for Ford is, will consumers buy its new image or the new SUV?

Two Lansing, Kan., residents and Ford drivers, Rena Kowalewski and Billy Blackwell may help to answer that question. Kowalewski is a secretary at Lansing Intermediate School and a longtime SUV driver. She said she likes the fact that her SUV is four-wheel drive for driving in the winter.

She also likes its size.

"I like sitting up; I'm not comfortable in a small car," she said.

Kowalewski said she would consider a hybrid for her next SUV. She isn't considering buying one for now, though.

"I don't want a new car payment. This one is paid for," she said.

Kowalewski said savings in gasoline consumption would be the biggest reason for her to buy a hybrid SUV, when she's ready.

Blackwell is a Lansing City Council member and instructional engineer with Cubic Defense Applications in Leavenworth. He just bought his third SUV: a new Ford Explorer, his third since 1998.

Blackwell said he also likes the room of the vehicles, as well as their all-weather handling, and the "safety aspect - I'm not going to be as hurt if I get in an accident as I would be if I were in a large sedan."

Blackwell said he had originally intended to buy the next-smaller SUV in Ford's lineup, the Escape, but not the hybrid model.

"I had problems with that because of my age," he said. The Escape had no running board for easy entrance, and its smaller size also required him to stoop his head when getting in.

Blackwell said he would consider getting a hybrid SUV "once they get all the bugs worked out" and the price comes down to within $5,000 more than a regular model of the same vehicle.

Blackwell said gas prices would have to get "considerably higher" for him to consider getting a hybrid-powered SUV now.

Blackwell said his Explorer's room and safety made up for its mileage rating - 15 miles per gallon in the city and 20 mpg on the highway - that Blackwell described as the vehicle's single downside.

He said he thought a hybrid version of most auto models will be offered in the future.

"I don't know how soon," Blackwell said, "but the oil crunch is going to force us down that road" of either hybrids or other alternative sources of energy for automobiles.

Nick Dominguez, sales manager with Danny Zeck Ford in Leavenworth, said "The interest is very, very high" in hybrid SUVs at the Leavenworth dealership.

Danny Zeck has sold a hybrid model of the Mariner's twin, the Ford Escape - the only one the dealership has had in stock - since they went on sale in July, he said.

"It sold immediately," Dominguez said. "Our belief is we're going to sell every one we get." He said the dealership was awaiting shipment of two or three more in the next few weeks.

Dominguez said he thought the biggest reason for interest in hybrids was the relatively high cost of gas these days. But that's not the only one, he said.

"I think there's a lot of motivation based on environmental concern," he said. "People do actually see the benefits and will pay a premium price not just for reduced fuel prices, but (also) reduced hydrocarbons."

"The interest is very high," Dominguez said. "On a scale of one to 10, it's a nine."


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