What will be the most important 2009 hybrid car developments? The biggest stories are the release of the third-generation Prius and the return of the Honda Insight. Both are high-volume well-priced options for mainstream car buyers. We will also see the first hybrid introductions from Mercedes and BMW, and improved vehicles from Ford and Honda. By the end of the year, new plug-in hybrid and all-electric vehicles will make debuts—although as niche offerings.

Hybrids Beat Overall Market by Staying Flat

Despite tough economic times and a shrinking US vehicle market, demand for hybrids continues to outpace the overall market. We expect the hybrid market to defy the gravity of a recession in 2009.

Hybrid sales—as a percentage of all new car sales—are likely to remain flat from 2008 levels at about 2.5 percent. But considering the overall car market is shrinking in 2009, the total number of hybrid sales will drop to about 250,000. The Toyota Prius—the third-generation version that debuted in January—will continue to be the biggest seller, but will be joined by the 2010 Honda Insight. Honda has a US sales target of 100,000 units per year, but will have difficulty reaching that number. The remaining sales will come from a field of hybrids that will grow from 15 models in late 2008 to beyond 20—including Ford’s first hybrid sedans, the first hybrid from Mercedes, and a dedicated hybrid-only model from Lexus. The two-mode full hybrid version of the Saturn Vue small SUV was put on the shelf as GM sold off the brand in its bankruptcy.

Battle of the Hybrid Titans

The first two hybrids to hit the US market back in late 1999/early 2000, were the Insight and Prius. Well, it’s back to the future. Nine years later, these two hybrid titans will once again dominate, although the Prius will remain the biggest seller.

The new Toyota Prius was unveiled at the Detroit auto show in January 2009. The third generation Prius is be bigger and more powerful. The engine grew from 1.5 liters to 1.8 liters—giving a boost in horsepower from 110 to 160—and the body is be three to four inches longer and about an inch wider. The combined US fuel economy rating is 50 mpg, by keeping the weight down to current levels and re-engineering the powertrain to extend the range of all-electric gas-free driving.

The next Prius does not offer plug-in capabilities and continues to use nickel metal hydride batteries, rather than switching to lithium ion batteries.

In the spring, Honda began shipping its revitalized Honda Insight—perfectly priced several thousand dollars below the Prius. At $20,000, the 2010 Honda Insight is be the most affordable high-mpg vehicle on the market.

The new Honda Insight is more practical than the earlier Insight. It’s a five-door hatchback with ample room for five passengers. The aerodynamic design borrows elements from Honda’s FCX Clarity fuel cell vehicle, and bears resemblance to the Toyota Prius’s iconic hatchback profile. Honda is pinning its hybrid resurgence on the Insight—and plans to follow in future years with a Honda CR-Z hybrid and perhaps a Honda Fit hybrid.

Upgrades for 2009 Hybrid Model Year

2009 Ford Escape Hybrid

The 2009 Ford Escape Hybrid’s engine grew from 2.3 liters to 2.5. The vehicle maintains its lead position for SUV fuel economy.

  • 2009 Honda Civic Hybrid

    The Honda Civic, including the hybrid version, gets a sportier style with three larger air -intakes—and new high-tech features for 2009. The front bumper cover and grille are more angular. Inside, the hybrid gets optional leather-trimmed seats, as well as heated fronts seats and side mirrors. A bluetooth-ready navigation system and USB audio interface are also available.

  • 2009 Ford Escape Hybrid and 2009 Mercury Mariner Hybrid

    For 2009, the Ford Escape Hybrid replaces a 2.3-liter engine with a 2.5—boosting net horsepower from 155 to 177. Ford engineers refined the Escape hybrid’s braking system to allows for better traction and stability control, and a smoother feel to the brakes, previously not incorporated into the hybrid system. Noise and vibrations have been reduced in the process. This is especially evident when the engine shuts off and the vehicle moves into all-electric mode. A 110-volt AC power outlet now comes standard. The Mercury Mariner Hybrid receives the Sync voice-activated phone and music system as standard equipment.

  • 2009 Chevrolet Malibu Hybrid

    For 2009, the Malibu Hybrid is rated at 26 city and 34 highway—meaning a much healthier 4-mpg boost over the base-level Malibu. The previous Malibu Hybrid only managed a 2-mpg gain. The combined fuel economy in our road text was 29.8 miles per gallon. (Unfortunately, the Malibu was another victim of GM’s bankruptcy.)

2009 Hybrid Introductions

Mercedes S-Class Hybrid

In 2009, Mercedes will introduce its first hybrid.

  • Ford Fusion Hybrid and Mercury Milan Hybrid

    Hybrid versions of the Ford Fusion and Mercury Milan were introduced in 2009. Ford’s first hybrid sedans use a 2.5-liter engine to yield 200 horsepower. The entire 2009 Fusion lineup received a design refresh, including new headlines and front grille and a complete redesign of the interior. More importantly, the cars return 41 miles per gallon on the EPA city cycle, said chief engineer J.D. Shanahan, and highway mileage “at least 6 miles a gallon better than Camry Hybrid”—which would be 40 mpg or higher. This beats the mileage for the 2008 Camry Hybrid, at 33/34 (city/highway). Other impressive statistics for the Fusion Hybrid include pure electric speeds as high as 47 miles per hour, up to 2 miles of continuous electric-only driving, and a range of 700 city miles on one tank of gasoline.

  • Mercedes S-Class Hybrid

    In September 2009, Mercedes will begin to sell a hybrid version of its luxury S-Class sedan—the first hybrid to use lighter and more powerful lithium ion batteries. (Europe will see the vehicle earlier in the summer.) The company promises 30 miles per gallon—a 20 percent fuel economy improvement over the conventional S400. The lithium battery may be leading edge technology but it’s offered at a bleeding edge cost: The S-Class starts at about $88,000—so expect the Mercedes hybrid to cost about $30,000 more than the only other luxury hybrid sedan on the market, the V8 Lexus GS 450h.

    The Lexus, with a whopping 430 horsepower from its hybrid V8 powertrain, will outperform the Mercedes S400 Hybrid’s combined electric and gas rating of 295 horsepower and top speed of 155 miles per hour. Bear in mind that the Lexus GS only managed 23 miles to the gallon. The Mercedes S400 Hybrid will be the first in a series of hybrids expected from the company in coming years.

  • New Dedicated Lexus Hybrid: Lexus HS 250h

    The Lexus HS 250h is the Lexus brand’s first dedicated hybrid, just as the Prius was for its parent brand Toyota. A comparison to the 2010 Prius is apt, since the two cars share the same basic platform. They both ride on a 106.3-inch wheelbase, though the Lexus HS 250h is 2 inches wider, half an inch higher, and a full 9 inches longer than its hatchback relative. The HS also has a larger 2.4-liter engine—similar to the one in the Toyota Camry Hybrid—against the 1.8-liter engine used by the 2010 Prius. The complete hybrid system in the Lexus is fully 40 percent more powerful than that of the Prius: 187 horsepower compared to 134. Official EPA mileage for the HS 250h is 35 mpg in the city and 34 on the highway. The new Lexus HS will go on sale for $34,200 in August 2009.

  • BMW 7-Series Hybrid

    BMW launched its new 7-series in Paris and unveiled a hybrid concept version which will cut fuel use by 15 percent. It combines a V8 engine with electric drive with a mild hybrid system.

2009 Hybrid Plug-in Introductions

Fisker Karma

Fisker Karma.

Press releases from a number of small and innovative car companies are promising limited run plug-in hybrid and all-electric vehicles. Like Tesla Motors, which has had trouble pushing vehicles out of the factory, these companies are likely to face challenges in delivering more than a handful of vehicles to consumer.

  • Fisker Karma

    The Karma accelerates from 0-60 mph in less than six seconds, and has a top speed of 125 mph. The four-door plug-in hybrid premium sports sedan will have a starting price of $80,000. Initial deliveries of the Karma are schedule to commence in the fourth quarter of 2009.

  • VentureOne

    What do you get when you combine the exhilaration of riding a fast motorcycle, the safety and comfort of a commuter car, and the fuel efficiency of advanced automotive technologies? The VentureOne—a two-passenger, three-wheeled, 100-mpg plug-in series hybrid from Venture Vehicles in Los Angeles.

  • Phoenix Motorcars SUT

    Phoenix Motorcars, based in Rancho Cucamonga, Calif., had big plans to shake up the EV world in 2009, but fell short and finally sputtered into Chapter 11. Its fate is undetermined but the prospects are not high. The company had planned to use engine-less vehicles supplied by Ssangyong, Korea’s fourth largest automaker, as the basis for its electric vehicle line in the US. (Ssangyong doesn’t sell cars in the United States). Analysts questioned Phoenix’s business model for years and its capacity to deliver a $45,000 SUT in any quantities. It now appears that the few models that were produced will become collector’s items.