Fuel-sipping cars still years away

The media got an official peek at what’s new and in the pipeline from the world’s auto manufacturers during this week’s North American International Auto Show in Detroit.

By now, you’ve probably seen or read that fuel economy and vehicles that use alternative fuels are becoming all the rage.

It may seem that these new vehicles can’t come a moment too soon for drivers suffering from paying $3 or more for a gallon of gasoline.

The reality, however, is that in almost all cases, it will be two to three years before drivers can get behind the wheel of these new, significantly more fuel-efficient vehicles.

How long will you have to keep your current vehicle before trading it for something more befitting our current economy? Here’s the scoop:

Toyota and General Motors plan to market plug-in hybrids that can run on electricity alone for maximum fuel economy. These cars can be recharged overnight from a standard electrical socket.

The range of GM’s Volt prototype — promised by late 2010 — is expected to be 40 miles on batteries alone. For longer trips, a gasoline engine would either kick in to charge the batteries or take over completely to extend the vehicle’s range.

Toyota has not made any predictions for the range of its coming plug-in Prius hybrid. But the company has said it also hopes to have production vehicles available by 2010.

For now, the challenge of developing affordable and reliable lithium-ion batteries is holding back production on most of these cars. Consumers can find miniature versions of such batteries on laptop computers. These batteries promise to be lighter and have more power than the nickel metal hydride batteries now used in current non-plug-in hybrids.

The niche-maker, Fisker Automotive of Irvine, Calif., says it will be first to market with a plug-in hybrid production car. Run by a former designer for BMW and Aston Martin, Fisker says it will have an $80,000 sports car with plug-in hybrid technology ready for sale by the end of next year.

Al Gore has already ordered one, according to the company.

Chrysler, which so far has lagged behind in even offering conventional gas-electric hybrids, trotted out three plug-in concept vehicles in Detroit — the Chrysler ecoVoyager, Dodge Zeo and Jeep Renegade. There’s no word on when — if ever — these vehicles will be available.

Meanwhile, Honda, GM, BMW and others haven’t given up on cars and trucks powered by hydrogen, the more exotic alternative to gasoline-only vehicles.

This summer, Honda is making its FCX Clarity sedan available to select test buyers in California. This car uses a hydrogen-powered fuel cell. Honda will select buyers who will pay $600 a month on a three-year lease.

General Motors is launching three-month test drives for select consumers of its latest fuel cell vehicle, an electric Chevrolet Equinox. However, no time has been set for production. GM also unveiled a Cadillac sport utility vehicle concept, the Provoq, which is envisioned to run on hydrogen.

GM and other manufacturers are also pushing forward to make their fleets compatible with E85 ethanol fuel. But GM acknowledged that the bio fuel needs to become more widely available.

Ford says it will take more immediate steps to improve its vehicles’ fuel economy through the introduction of a new family of gasoline engines that use its EcoBoost technology.

The engines use turbochargers and direct fuel injection to improve mileage by 20 percent, according to Ford. The first vehicle to get the new engine will be the 2009 Lincoln MKS sedan.

Buyers should keep in mind that when these new technologies appear, they likely won’t be on the more affordable models. You’ll also pay a stiff premium over traditional gasoline engine cars.

For those eager to save at the gas pump, the best bet — aside from making sure your current vehicle is operating efficiently — is to look for smaller vehicles with smaller engines, since there still appears to be a long wait before technology will ride to the rescue.

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