UNCASVILLE, Conn. - Even in a small sea of over-the-top limousines, 28-foot-long black Lincolns, and stretched-out Hummers with not one but three cocktail bars in the back, this was a car that stood out from the crowd.
What made it unique? An environmentally friendly hybrid engine that makes this livery-package Mercury Mariner capable of getting 34 miles a gallon in the city, easily triple the mileage of a maxed-out Hummer.
As limousine-company owners and industry vendors gathered at the Mohegan Sun casino this week for the LCT Eastern Conference/New England Livery Association trade show and convention, one of the showroom-floor vehicles getting its tires kicked the most was the new Mariner hybrid sport-utility vehicle customized for limousine service. It was the first time the vehicle has been displayed outside of Ford Motor Co. dealer meetings.
Many companies have begun in the last year offering chauffeur-driven hybrid livery cars, including PlanetTran in Cambridge and Go Green Airport Shuttle in Pelham, N.H., which both use Toyota Priuses. More than 300 hybrid taxis have gone into service in New York and San Francisco since late 2005.
The Mariner, however, is the first manufacturer-sponsored hybrid made specifically for livery service. Painted in - what else - deep glossy black, with a specialized four-year, 100,000-mile warranty and deluxe business-executive appointments such as leather seats and a front-seat electric outlet for a laptop computer, the car sells for $30,200 in its front-wheel-drive version. Buyers can get a $3,000 federal energy-conservation tax credit.
The first livery cars are expected to reach fleet operators in November or December.
Known for ample, often colossal, fuel-chugging vehicles, the limo business is starting to go green.
"Our biggest challenge right now is the price of fuel, and if you compare the costs, apples to apples, this is a cheaper vehicle to run," said show attendee Roger J. Richard, president of Associated Cab Ltd. in Calgary, which runs a fleet of 425 taxis and 75 livery cars in the Western Canada energy-industry hub.
Associated uses eight hybrid Ford Escapes in the cab fleet and plans to add several of the Mercury Mariners, a posher cousin of the Escape in size and styling.
"The next five years, there is going to be a huge change in the industry," Richard added. "There has to be."
Doug Walczak, limousine and livery manager for Ford's North American fleet operations, said in recent months he and other Ford executives have been peppered with inquiries from customers seeking to add hybrids to their fleet, including one Brooklyn limousine operator who was warned by a client that if he didn't add a hybrid to his fleet by New Year's Day, they'd drop him.
"A lot of operators said, 'What are we going to do to listen to the green market? What are we doing to respond to the environmental movement?' " Walczak said.
The EPA rates the Mariner at 34 miles to the gallon in city driving, 30 on the highway, compared with 15 city and 23 highway for the industry-standard Lincoln Town Car built with an extra 6 inches of rear-seat legroom. Depending on weight, customized stretch Hummers and Cadillac Escalades can rate single-digit mileage.
In sharp contrast to gasoline-only vehicles, which normally are far more fuel-efficient on the highway, hybrids do better in stop-and-go city driving, when they can operate all-electric at slow speeds and have batteries repeatedly recharged as the brakes are applied, through the technological marvel known as regenerative braking.
Such companies as PlanetTran, which expanded last year from Boston and Cambridge to also serve the San Francisco Bay area, showed there's a clear market for environmentally minded chauffeured-car customers willing to pay $60 an hour and stuff themselves in the back seat of a Prius.
New York hybrid limo operator OzoCar, which runs a fleet of Priuses and Lexus Rx400h hybrids, and Executive Transportation Group, which runs 17 metropolitan New York black car fleets, plan this fall to roll out franchised hybrid-car limo services in six to eight more US cities.
Roger Hamelin, owner of Prospect Limo Service LLC in Prospect, Conn., who operates a fleet of five cars he drives for weddings, proms, and airport service and night-on-the-town runs to Boston and New York, said he'd be leery of offering service in a Prius.
"I wouldn't do that because of the luggage space," Hamelin said.
Looking over the Mariner, Hamelin said he liked what he saw, but admitted, "I'm hoping they'd be able to come in sooner or later with a Town Car hybrid version. That's the real standard in this business, and people want to be green. People like being able to say, 'I'm using a green car for my limo.' "
Peter J. Howe can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.