Dec. 16, 2006: The Virginian-Pilot—Hybrid Hope or Hype?

Summary: "When it comes to fuel economy, the engineering challenge seems simple. The more weight you add to an automobile, the more energy must be consumed to move it. Thus, in fuel economy terms, weight is the enemy.

Thus, on the surface, a gas-electric hybrid car doesn’t make sense. Loading an extra motor and a large battery pack in the interest of increasing fuel economy seems counter-intuitive.

This debate sees its full effect in two new, small crossover hybrid SUVs: the Saturn Vue Green Line, and the Mercury Mariner Hybrid. While both claim to be hybrids, their approach is different."

The Saturn—a so-called mild hybrid—adds a belt-alternator starter, electric motor assist, and regenerative braking for a battery pack that generates 14.5 kW, but it cannot run on electric power alone. While the VUE doesn’t offer many options, it’s also priced considerably lower. Ignoring the EPA ratings, the writer’s test drive returned 25 mpg.

For comparison, Consumer Reports found Toyota Prius to get 44 mpg and the Honda Civic Hybrid, 37 mpg (many drivers get much better fuel economy than this). A non-hybrid crossover SUV, the Toyota RAV-4, got 23 in Consumer Reports tests.

The Mercury, with a full hybrid system that can run on electric power alone at low speeds, came out at 29 mpg for the same test drive. Its base model is nearly $7,000 more than the Saturn, though, and a wealth of available options is liable to jack the actual selling price even higher.

As with any choice a consumer faces, there are many factors to consider. What do current owners of each vehicle have to say?

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