Hybrids use both the familiar gasoline engine and an electric motor in a clever combination governed by computer. The end result is greater fuel economy and less air pollution.
Honda and Toyota have a head-start with hybrids, Toyota first in the world with the Prius and Honda first to the American market with the Insight. That head-start has led veteran auto industry observer and Forbes magazine columnist Jerry Flint to declare the Japanese have won the hybrid battle against Detroit for the public's hearts and minds. "It's really important, what people think is important. And when the people think, "Gee, the Japanese can turn out a car that turns out [80 kilometers] to the U.S. gallon [3.8 liters], and what are you guys doing?", right? So, yes, hearts and minds are darned important," he says.
But Ford Motor Company spokeswoman Sara Tatchio takes the high road, insisting there is no public relations battle. "What's really important is what can it do for fuel economy in the country? What kind of mark can it make that way to help? Also, will it be an excellent vehicle? So, we're not in a pr war with this, we're in a war to produce an excellent vehicle," she says.
But the executive director of global forecasting for the international marketing information company, JD Power and Associates, Walter McManus, acknowledges the pr war is on. "The perception that people have is that Honda and Toyota are the Number One and Number Two most environmentally-friendly vehicles, and General Motors is third. Ford, I think, comes after that," he says.
But Mr. McManus is convinced that General Motors, in 10 years' time will be the dominant manufacturer in hybrids. Forbes magazine's Jerry Flint does not share that view. "General Motors hasn't caught up to Toyota in four cylinder engines and it's been 30 years, for Pete's sake," he says. "Why would I think they're going to catch up with them in hybrids?"
Mr. Flint says the time for talk is over, that the American manufacturers should quit talking about their plans for the future and put hybrid products on the road. "That's when you learn what works, what doesn't work, when you actually build them and get on the street," he says.