The Hybrid Revolution: Are these cars worth the extra cost?

Mercury Mariner HybridMercury Mariner Hybrid
My first reaction to the Mercury Mariner Hybrid was: ?It?s cute!? That?s not my typical reaction when I think of SUVs, even mini SUVs. But this one had a unique appeal and begged the question: To whom is this being marketed??

The Mariner is small, practical, and allows you to do your part to save the planet.

Sounds perfect for those in college or recent college grads, right? Not quite. With more than a $5K price difference above the standard Mariner, the hybrid version is an indulgence, which most college students I know can?t afford. The base price of the Mariner Hybrid is $29,225. Our test vehicle was equipped with a $3,795 premium package, which adds a touch of elegance and includes heated power mirrors, premium leather trim, safety canopy and side air bags, for a grand total of $33,635.? At this price, there are a number of higher quality vehicles the ultra-chic crowd would typically gravitate toward, or they may even consider a larger SUV that offers more comfort, space and performance.

Powered by a 2.3-liter four-cylinder Atkinson-cycle engine with permanent-magnet electric motor coupled to an electronically controlled continuously variable transmission (eCVT), the Mariner Hybrid is capable of producing the equivalent of approximately 155 horsepower when both electric motor and gasoline engine are combined.? The ride is comfortable and very quiet at lower speeds, but the Mariner produces a harsh ride with noticeable engine noise at higher speeds and fails to instill a sense of confidence when extra power is needed for passing situations. My average fuel economy for highway driving was approximately 30 miles per gallon, compared to an EPA estimated 26 mpg (highway driving) for the standard Mariner. Not bad, considering the increasing cost of a gallon of gas, but not an overwhelming margin over the conventional Mariner.

 Lexus GS 450hLexus GS 450h
So, here you have it: The Lexus GS 450h, the industry?s first high-performance hybrid rear-drive sedan. Now you can drive like a demon and not worry about wasting gas or trashing the environment.? At the press introduction on Hawaii?s Big Island, chief engineer Shigetoshi Miyoshi explained that first and foremost, this hybrid will deliver the performance of a modern 4.5-liter V8 engine, while sipping the fuel of a 2.5-liter four cylinder. Second, the car?s smog-forming emissions are 80 percent cleaner than those of the average car. Third, the level of noise during the electric-mode is one half that of normal engine operation, thanks to redesigned fans and motors. Finally, 0-60 m.p.h. time is as quick on the GS 450h as a Porsche 911 with Tiptronic.

After driving the GS 450h, we were impressed. This is a hybrid with oomph, as well as the great engineering on which Lexus has built its name. Given the reputation behind the vehicle, does the 450h deliver on its promise? Yes, on performance; yes, on quiet; yes, on high-end comfort; and yes, on all those green-friendly bonuses you expect of a hybrid. As far as the overall look, we?d like a little more funk.

The GS 450h is significant not just for Lexus, but also for the automotive world, as it is the first hybrid luxury rear-wheel drive car available on the market. With a 0-60 m.p.h. of 5.2 seconds, a top speed of 131 m.p.h. and a combined gas mileage of 28 m.p.g., the GS 450h is ahead of the curve. The heart: The Hybrid Synergy Drive consists of 3.5-liter all-aluminum V6, producing 292 horsepower and 267 pound-feet of torque, and two electric motors generating 197 horsepower. Combined rating is 339 horsepower. And it?s good for the earth. This kind of eco-consciousness, however, comes at a price. The manufacturer?s suggested retail price is $54,900.??? ?

Kimatni D. Rawlins is the publisher of Automotive Rhythms and host of ?The Urban Automotive Experience.? Visit?