auto

Fuel-sipping cars still years away

Terry JacksonThe 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.

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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.

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