- The Washington Times - Monday, January 6, 2003

DETROIT (AP) General Motors Corp. plans to offer a variety of gas-and-electric powered vehicles over the next four years, one of the clearest signs yet that hybrid cars may be going mainstream.
The plan by the world's biggest automaker, to be announced today, includes hybrid models for cars, pickups and sport utility vehicles.
GM's new strategy sends a signal that auto executives are starting to consider energy-efficient hybrids as viable offerings to the mainstream motoring public.
Hybrids draw power from two different energy sources, typically a gas or diesel engine combined with an electric motor. While environmentally friendly and fuel efficient, their high cost has prevented them from securing more than a niche market.
For now, the only versions available in the United States are small cars made by Honda Motor Co. and Toyota Motor Corp.
GM will offer hybrid options on several vehicles, starting later this year with the GMC Sierra and Chevrolet Silverado pickups for use in commercial fleets. The hybrid versions of the trucks will increase fuel economy by 10 percent to 12 percent, the company says.
Those same trucks will be available to retail consumers in 2004. If demand is high for all hybrid models, GM says it could produce 1 million or more a year by 2007. GM sold nearly 4.8 million vehicles in 2002.
"We're taking a very pragmatic approach, targeting a wide array of popular models with varying degrees of complexity to give consumers a variety of choice," said Rick Wagoner, GM president and chief executive.
In 2005, GM will begin producing a Saturn VUE sport utility featuring a dual electric motor system that will boost its average gas mileage some 50 percent to nearly 40 miles per gallon. GM also will include a hybrid option on its forthcoming Chevy Equinox SUV in 2006 and its Chevy Malibu sedan in 2007.
GM, Toyota and Honda are not alone in exploring the hybrid market.
Ford Motor Co., the world's second-largest automaker, plans to start selling a hybrid version of its small Escape SUV about a year from now, and DaimlerChrysler AG's Chrysler Group is producing a hybrid model of its popular Dodge Ram pickup and expects to have a hybrid passenger car in production by 2007.
Recently, officials have tried to offset the high cost of hybrids by allowing buyers in some areas to qualify for a federal tax deduction and local tax breaks.
Mike Wall, an analyst with the automotive forecasting firm IRN Inc., said the cost benefit extra mileage per gallon typically isn't enough to sway most people.
"If the tax breaks are sweetened, and if you push the envelope for better gas mileage, I think you'll see more penetration," Mr. Wall said.
The Union of Concerned Scientists, a fuel economy advocacy group, said in a report last week that while a hybrid could cost $4,000 more than a conventional vehicle, drivers could save nearly $5,500 in gasoline over the vehicle's life.
Daniel Becker, a fuel-economy expert at the Sierra Club, compared GM's newly announced commitment to hybrid vehicles with "Nixon going to China."
"It's big news, but it's a lot late," Mr. Becker said. "The fact that Honda and Toyota had to prove that hybrids work well and can sell well means the Big Three are playing catch-up yet again."

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