Europe Throws in Towel

It is a sign that gasoline-electric hybrid vehicles have become the height of fashion in powertrain circles when auto makers use the Frankfurt auto show, in the heart of diesel-crazy Europe, to join the rage. Japan is the birthplace of the modern hybrid. North America is the biggest market. And Europe is its worst critic. Japanese auto makers lead the field in sales, technology and ambitious forecasts.

It is a sign that gasoline-electric hybrid vehicles have become the height of fashion in powertrain circles when auto makers use the Frankfurt auto show, in the heart of diesel-crazy Europe, to join the rage.

Japan is the birthplace of the modern hybrid. North America is the biggest market. And Europe is its worst critic.

Japanese auto makers lead the field in sales, technology and ambitious forecasts. Toyota plans hybrid versions of everything in its lineup.

In North America, Ford leads the pack and says it will offer about 250,000 Ford, Mercury and Lincoln hybrids by 2010. General Motors and Chrysler have paired up to try to recover lost ground, with plans to put the technology in vehicles starting in 2007.

In Europe, where more than half the vehicles on the road have diesels, hybrid has been a bit of a dirty word.

But now virtually all have thrown in the towel.

BMW recently joined the GM-Chrysler partnership to speed development of an advanced hybrid system for use by all. In the meantime, at the Frankfurt show is a hybrid BMW X3, a Mercedes S-Class with a starter-alternator and the Smart Crosstown 2-door convertible hybrid concept.

Audi and Porsche announced a partnership to develop a hybrid system for the Audi Q7 and Porsche Cayenne cross/utility vehicles.

Volkswagen says it has developed technology with the flexibility to mate electric motors to a variety of powertrains and plans to do so, starting in 2008, on the VW Jetta and Q7 for North America and on the VW Touran for China.

VW CEO Bernd Pischetsrieder is by no means a hybrid convert. “On normal distances, hybrid is nonsense,” he says, lamenting the cost of combining two powertrains when a single diesel is more consistently efficient while providing a torque-induced spirited ride.

Backing him up is a recent road test by German trade magazine Auto Bild in which a Mercedes CUV with a diesel proves more fuel efficient than a Lexus RX 400h hybrid in a drive from New York to San Francisco.

It reinforces the industry consensus that diesels are more efficient for distance driving; hybrids are better for stop-and-go city driving.

But, Pischetsrieder acquiesces, hybrids are fashionable right now in the U.S., and what the consumer wants, the consumer shall have.

They also may become more fashionable in Europe, where a number of countries now offer tax breaks and other incentives to HEV buyers.

And there is a compelling reason for offering hybrids in China: Cities such as Beijing ban diesel engines.

The reality is most hybrid owners will not recoup the extra cost through lower prices at the pump.

As such, the purchase may not be logical. But is it any more irrational than paying a premium for a 7L V-8 producing 500 hp in the Corvette Z06 when speed limits and congestion all but guarantee it rarely will be used to its potential?

Both purchases make a statement.

And it is the consumers' to make.

Alisa Priddle is editor of Ward's Automotive Reports.

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