Sunday, July 19, 2009

A Sensible Alternative -- The New Prius Hybrid

We just bought a new Prius hybrid car—and it is sensational.What can you say about getting an average of 55 miles per gallon? And, overall, the Prius works superbly.

I’d love to have been patriotic and bought an American car, but the closest American hybrid is the Ford Fusion getting 41 miles per gallon.

The 2010 Prius is the kind of car that should be produced by a U.S. manufacturer. Just out, it’s selling like hotcakes, not just here but in Japan, where it is made. With its release in recent weeks, it’s become the Number 1 selling car Japan. It quickly edged out the earlier released Honda Insight hybrid.

An Internet piece on this, headed “Battle of the Hybrids” notes: “Toyota now has released its all-new 2010 Prius hybrid in Japan…and it looks like there was lots of pent-up demand even in these difficult economic times.” As to the competition among hybrids for being the best-seller, it adds: “Notice a trend here.”

Surely, this is the direction that the U.S. auto manufacturers should have gone in. Why didn’t they?

The Economist magazine, in an caustic editorial about the Detroit auto-makers last month—“Detroitosaurus wrecks” was the title—spoke about how the problem has not been “the arrival of better, smaller, lighter Japanese cars.” It focused on General Motors’ “failure to respond in kind.” It said: “Rather than hitting back with superior products,” GM tried to limit the imports while producing “squadrons of SUV’s.”

Said The Economist: “If Detroit had spent less time lobbying for government protection and more on improving its products, it might have fared better.”

Now there has been a big exception: the Saturn. This was an attempt by GM to produce a well-made, fuel-efficient American car. We have one, a 1995 Saturn station wagon, which now has 165,000 miles on it, gets gas mileage in the mid-30s.

Not only were Saturns produced differently, with more quality, in a special factory GM set up in Tennessee, but the attitude of Saturn dealers, when you bought one or went for service, was extraordinarily user-friendly.

Then GM downsized and scuttled the Saturn initiative. In recent times, as the company got into big trouble, it sold off what was indeed its answer to Toyota, Honda and so on.

Detroit lost its way.

And like many, I’ve had to move to a sensible alternative.

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