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June 25, 2008

New Car

Wanted to buy an American-made plugin hybrid electric vehicle (PHEV). But there are no PHEVs available commercially, American-made or not, and the seven year old SUV was due for replacement even if it weren't guzzling premium at an alarming rate. Gas economy counts and, here in Nerdville, technology is important too. So what about an American-built hybrid? Got to have high road clearance and four wheel drive or can't reliably get up the last gravel hill on the way home in the winter.

My first pick was the Ford Escape Hybrid; the four wheel drive model is supposed to get 29mpg city and 27 on the highway (the front wheel drive is even better). Was getting ready to go for a test drive and feeling good about buying a domestic car when a friend suggested we look at the safety ratings. Unfortunately, those made the car a no-go for us. It's only got a 3 star rating for rollover in government tests and is not in the top rank for crashworthiness in Insurance Institute tests.

Ended up with a Toyota Highlander Hybrid which is really a bigger car than we need and doesn't get as good mileage (27/25)  and isn't American-made but comes out better on the safety tests. It's full of cool technology and displays of what is being charged by what which Mary says are unsafe when a nerd is driving. Fortunately you can also check out your gas performance retrospectively when you stop. You also can't enter an address in the GPS while you're moving (but maybe I'll figure out how).

I have a little – but not much – sympathy for Ford's problem. There is an arms race: the smaller and lighter the car, the less well it fares in a collision with a bigger car. If everyone had a smaller car and there were no trucks, the problem wouldn't exist. So, although a bigger car pays a fuel penalty, it gets a safety bonus – perhaps at the expense of someone else. But that's the way the world is.

This OUGHT to be a great time to be in the car business. Almost everyone who can afford to wants to trade up (down?) to a car that gets better mileage. You go on a waitlist and no bargaining if you want a Toyota Prius; I only got to bargain a little for the Highlander Hybrid and had to buy the one car on the lot if I wanted any assurance on when we'd get delivery. Toyota had the foresight to build hybrids early – but even they apparently didn't anticipate the demand.

Why isn't the president of Ford or GM or Chrysler meeting with their union leaders and their engineers and their bankers and coming up with a plan to radically retool over the next six months and retake not just the American car market but a chunk of the world as well? It took less than a year for a much less automated American manufacturing sector to go from refrigerators and cars to guns, tanks, and planes after Pearl Harbor: that retooling was a big part of what won that war. We could do that again. Will we? Only if we want to continue to be one of the leaders of the world economy.

I'm not suggesting a government program other than a commitment to buy hybrids and plugin hybrids for its own fleet and provide recharge points at its own facilities. I'm suggesting that we act hungry and change fast, that huge companies act like small companies have to (that may be unrealistic). There is a huge market for fuel efficient cars – we don't need hype to create that. We do need product to meet the demand. If the product isn't made here, that'll be a shame but we're better off buying cars from Japan, India, and China than oil from Saudi Arabia.

So I'm hoping that when our other car is old enough to trade – about two years – I really can buy an American-built plugin hybrid electric vehicle with a good safety rating.

First impressions of the Highlander Hybrid are here.

Opportunity Not Lost is about turning high gas prices to opportunity.

The Answer is Plug-in Hybrid Electric Vehicles is about the car I hope to buy next.

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