Two opposing automotive truths have emerged in the past decade. One: The SUV craze won't go away. Two: As long as SUVs are here, there will be politically correct people around to hate them. Ford Motor Company chairman William Clay Ford Jr. tried to bridge these two realities back in 2000, when he announced his company would improve its corporate-average fuel economy for SUVs by 25 percent by 2005--a goal he later conceded Ford couldn't meet.
Even though Ford fell short on this claim, its 2005 Escape Hybrid is a major piece of the plan to improve its image. Ford has won the race to market with the world's first production hybrid gas/electric-powered SUV, having beat the Lexus RX 400h by about half a year. While automotive analysts say the average person won't give up his big SUV until gas hits $3/gallon, we'd guess there are quite a few drivers who'd like to keep the versatility and utility of their SUVs but don't want to spend so much money to keep them running.
The European solution for large SUVs and other heavy vehicles is the diesel engine. Diesel fuel still generally costs less than gasoline in Europe--here, it's about the same price as unleaded premium. Diesels are popular in Europe because the E.U.'s fuel-economy measurement gives more weight to highway mileage, where the engines gain much of their fuel-economy advantage, while gas/electric hybrids are big news in the U.S., because the Environmental Protection Agency's fuel-mileage loop favors the stop and go of city and rush-hour driving. Hybrids that shut off the piston engine at idle and rely on battery powerpacks pick up significant mpg numbers in these tests, generally with higher city ratings than highway.
This won't keep automakers with a big presence (and turbodiesel production) in Europe from trying to sell diesels here. After 2007, when lower fuel-sulfur standards in this country help solve the diesel-particulate problem, expect to see more diesels trickle in, especially in trucks. The Jeep Liberty CRD is here now, just in time to face off against conventionally powered competitors like the Toyota RAV4 and alternatives like the Escape Hybrid.