Only months after the big auto makers vowed it couldn't be done, it is being done. Toyota has announced it will produce a full-sized luxury sport utility vehicle with a hybrid gasoline-electric engine that has all the bravado and macho of a standard V-8 but gets at least 10 miles per gallon more than current models.
The new Lexus was introduced at an auto show last week in Detroit, the hotbed of last year's sky-is-falling rants (successful) against Congress' attempt to require better gas mileage, especially from SUVs, and (unsuccessful) against a bill in the California Legislature to reduce emissions of greenhouse gases considered a cause of global warming.
The new SUV will hit showrooms by the end of next year. The Lexus 330 not only will provide better fuel economy, at 35 mpg, and lower emissions, it will be more powerful and perform better than conventional models, Toyota says. The hybrid combines traditional gasoline technology with an electrical propulsion system using power generated by the gasoline system. Toyota expects to sell up to 500,000 of its Lexus 330s a year at prices comparable to those of current models.
General Motors announced its own plans to have a dozen models of hybrid vehicles, including full-sized pickups and SUVs, during the next five years. Honda already has hybrids on the road. Others aren't far behind. But the Toyota and GM announcements, coming so soon after auto makers' nearly tearful protests that gas-consumption reductions would put soccer moms in tin cans, expose the industry's stock of falsehoods.
In the Senate, the auto makers claimed that if they were required to make higher-mileage models they would have to resort to flimsy materials in low-powered vehicles barely bigger than a golf cart. Government regulators would be dictating what kinds of vehicles people could buy. Mothers and children would be at risk.
Enough senators bought this nonsense that a small increase in required gas mileage failed. But expect to hear similar cries as Sens. John McCain (R-Ariz.) and Joseph I. Lieberman (D-Conn.) sponsor a bill to set limits on greenhouse gas emissions in both manufacturing and transportation.
The auto industry trotted out the same rhetoric during an almost hysterical campaign to defeat a bill requiring the state Air Resources Board to set limits on vehicles' greenhouse gas emissions, primarily carbon dioxide, in time for 2009 models. The campaign included television auto hawker Cal Worthington declaring, "I'm scared to death and you should be, too." Even so, the bill squeaked through and was signed into law by Gov. Gray Davis.
California delayed its new emission standards until 2009 to give hand-wringing auto makers time to develop new technology. Now it's clear that bigger, brawnier hybrid SUVs will be on the road long before the Air Resources Board even starts hearings on what emission levels to consider. That should make the board's job considerably easier -- and ought to quiet all the rhetoric about how it can't be done.