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GM, Ford hybrids close to production

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Ford's Escape, GM's Vue hybrid SUVs to target different markets

DETROIT - The hybrid-powertrain versions of the Ford Escape and Saturn Vue are about the same size and likely will be priced about the same.

Both are expected to deliver 40 mpg in city driving and to cut tailpipe emissions dramatically.

But that's where the similarities end. Ford Motor Co. and General Motors are targeting different customers with their first gasoline-electric hybrid SUVs.

Ford's plan is for the Escape HEV to have capabilities comparable to its conventional powertrain stablemates. It will be all-wheel drive and will be rated for some towing.

GM's aim is to stress on-road performance. The Vue hybrid will be engineered for the way Americans typically drive SUVs. It won't be able to pull heavy loads and will be available only in front-wheel drive.

The hybrid Vue will be similar to the Toyota Prius: The electric motors will propel the vehicle at low speeds until the gasoline engine takes over. In contrast, the electric motor in the Honda Civic and Insight hybrids provides a boost for the 1.0-liter, three-cylinder gasoline engine.

GM plans to sell 10,000 Vue hybrids annually once the vehicle is launched in 2005.

Ford wants to sell 20,000 Escape HEVs annually. It goes on sale late this year.

David Hughes, GM's advanced hybrid system program manager, says the Honda and Toyota hybrids are not engineered to deliver large fuel economy gains when cruising at highway speeds, which is common in the United States.

"The main thing is that we are going to change the game," says Hughes. "A lot of people are disappointed with the Civic and Prius when they take them on the road. In the Vue, the air conditioner stays on when you are going up a long hill, and you can get up a hill with great fuel economy."

The hybrid powertrain in the Vue will be rated at 188 total hp -

138 hp from the Ecotech 2.0-liter, four-cylinder engine and 50 hp from a pair of 20-kilowatt electric motors.

The electric motors are powered by a 300-volt battery pack stowed under the rear storage compartment in the space normally occupied by the spare tire.

Hughes says the Vue hybrid should deliver a 50 percent improvement in fuel economy over a 2003 Vue powered by a four-cylinder engine and automatic transmission, which is rated at 23 mpg city and 28 mpg highway.

The toughest part of engineering the Vue hybrid, Hughes says, has been writing the software that enables the gasoline engine and electric motors to work smoothly.

In the Vue hybrid, the electric motors will:

Start the engine

Drive the vehicle at low speeds

Keep the battery pack charged

Smooth the automatic transmission's shifts

Run the air conditioner when the gasoline engine is off

Hughes says GM is benefiting from its experience with the EV1 electric car program. Many of the engineers who helped develop the EV1 and its software are working on the Vue project, Hughes said.

The Vue and Escape are part of a boom in hybrid powertrains. The market for gasoline-electric hybrid vehicles in the United States is expected to reach 500,000 sales annually in five years, according to a study by J.D. Power and Associates released in January.

Toyota plans to expand its hybrid offerings to include gasoline-electric versions of the Lexus RX 330 and Highlander sport wagons.

GM also is launching a hybrid version of the Malibu sedan, using the same powertrain technology as the Vue hybrid, to compete with a planned Ford Futura hybrid.

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Toyota announced the New Prius engine as well. It uses a 78 hp 1.5 liter 4cyl and a 67 hp electric engine (145hp total). The current model has 114 hp. The price will not change.

Toyota also announced that a Landcruiser hybrid is being developed.

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