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Hybrids sell, but lack battery technology upgrade

Toyota passed a milestone in mid-2007 when it sold its one millionth hybrid car.

Other manufacturers such as Honda, Nissan, Ford, and General Motors also offer hybrids to an increasingly fuel-conscious clientele. Every manufacturer claims to be developing more efficient batteries, more efficient engines, and better designs.

But this class is not growing as fast as Toyota's sales achievement might suggest. In fact, looking ahead to 2008, what's notable is not a bunch of new models. What is notable is what is missing.

An all-new third generation of the Toyota Prius gas-electric hybrid car, first introduced seven years ago and redesigned last in 2004, has been eagerly anticipated. Although Toyota has not officially disclosed when the redesigned Prius would appear, unofficially, automotive journalists had been tipped to expect it sometime in 2008, as a 2009 model.

However, news reports from Japan recently said the car has been delayed by at least six months, to early 2009. A Toyota spokesman said the company would not comment. The reason? Because no official launch date had ever been confirmed, there was no way to officially confirm a delay.

The delay was reportedly caused by snags in developing new batteries for the electric system. The next Prius was expected to use new lithium-ion batteries. Currently, the Prius uses nickel metal hydride batteries, which take up more space and are not as efficient. Previously, Toyota set a goal of reducing the size of the battery pack in the next Prius by 50 percent, while also increasing its efficiency.

The delay is apparently to give Toyota engineers time to retrofit the new Prius design with the old-style nickel metal hydride batteries they had hoped to be rid of. At least initially, the new Prius will still have nickel metal hydride batteries. Lithium ion power is not ready for prime time; it gets unstable under extreme pressure and is apparently too unstable for automotive use at this stage.

The apparent failure of Toyota, and its development partners, to come up with a viable next-generation battery pack is a serious setback. Will its competitors use this to try to seize a competitive advantage? Don't look at Chevrolet. Its new Volt electric car, shown at the Detroit auto show this year, is still waiting for someone - anyone - to invent batteries to run it.

Nissan, which this year came out with its first hybrid car, the Altima, seems lukewarm on the technology. Its hybrid Altima, despite good mileage (low 40 m.p.g. range) and good reviews, is being offered in just five states.

Nissan says it has no plans to expand its distribution of the car, and no plans to make other hybrids.

Ford, which brought out a new Escape Hybrid in 2007 with slightly improved mileage (low 30s), is nevertheless reporting some trouble enticing buyers. Dealers report Escape Hybrids often sit on lots for long periods of time. In places like California, however, where hybrids sell in the greatest numbers overall, this is less of a problem than it is in the Midwest and Northeast.

Meanwhile, Honda, which next to Toyota sells the most hybrid cars, has killed both the Accord Hybrid and Insight in less than a year.

This was not much of a surprise, since the Accord Hybrid really didn't deliver on the key reason people buy hybrids: fuel mileage. It got slightly better fuel mileage than a regular gasoline-powered Accord and was marketed unsuccessfully as more of a performance car. The limited-use Insight, which had no trunk or back seat, had been around for several years and had lost its appeal, despite 70 m.p.g. fuel economy.

So what is next for Honda's hybrids, which are being outsold almost 7 to 1 by Toyota's hybrids?

The company is still moving ahead with plans for a new high-mileage hybrid to compete with the Toyota Prius. But it will not appear until 2009.

So the latest word from the hybrid front seems to be: Wait until 2009.

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