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Wednesday, December 28, 2005

Hybrid cars race ahead in 2005

Hybrid engines powered by electricity and petrol have been around for years. But it took a kick from rocketing gasoline prices to encourage large numbers of Americans to see their fuel-efficient appeal.

Toyota began selling the Prius in North America in 2000. It is now the best-selling hybrid in the United States, helped in no small part by the sight of Hollywood stars such as Brad Pitt and Cameron Diaz behind the wheel of one.

Up to the end of November, Toyota said it had sold 99,000 Prius cars this year compared to 47,700 over the same period of 2004.

According to research firm Global Insight, total US sales of hybrids are set to more than double to 200,000 this year and mushroom to 500,000 a year by 2010.

Toyota has led the way with the Prius and the four-by-four Highlander, designed to appeal to Americans' taste for sport utility vehicles (SUVs). Its Japanese rival Honda has three hybrid models and lies second in sales.

US giants General Motors and Ford are now ramping up their own hybrid production but came late to the game. The Ford Escape Hybrid made its debut in mid-2004 as the first US-made example of the genre.

GM and Ford remained wedded for too long to petrol SUVs and pick-up trucks, whose sales have slumped this year as Americans shun gas-guzzlers.

An average SUV consumes about 20 litres (five gallons) of petrol over a 100 kilometre (62 mile) trip, compared to a hybrid which will sip just four to five litres (1.1 to 1.3 gallons) of gasoline.

Ford's chairman blames Japanese government intervention for the sales advantage enjoyed by Toyota and Honda.

"Nearly a decade ago, the government offered subsidies to their domestic auto suppliers to build hybrid batteries, which are one of the most expensive components of today's hybrid vehicles," Bill Ford said in late November.

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