Gentlemen, Start Your Hybrids!

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At the Frankfurt motor show last week, European manufacturers proudly showed off their sleekest and most powerful models, including the new Mercedes flagship S-Class, a VW convertible called the Eos and Audi's big Q7 SUV. At least five of the new models have top speeds of 250 km/h or more. The display of power and performance isn't impressing some critics, who say it's not appropriate at a time of growing concern about climate change and high fuel prices. "These are not the car models of the future," says Hermann-Josef Vogt, deputy head of the German Traffic Association, a lobby group for more environment-oriented transportation policies.

By contrast, Japanese carmakers showed up in Frankfurt with a very strong environmental agenda. Toyota and Honda are both aggressively promoting their hybrid cars, which combine an electric motor with a regular gasoline engine and can cut fuel consumption by as much as 25%. Honda says its new 1.3-L Civic Hybrid uses just 4.6 L of gas per 100 km. And Toyota says it hopes to sell 20,000 of its hybrid Prius model in Europe this year, 2 1/2 times the number it sold last year.

To date, European manufacturers have largely dismissed hybrid technology as costly and inefficient, instead focusing their efforts on developing diesel engines. "German manufacturers slept through the hybrid development," says Helmut Becker, BMW's former chief economist. But they are belatedly embracing the technology: BMW, GM and Mercedes this month announced they will work together to develop hybrid engines. Porsche says it plans to build a hybrid version of its Cayenne SUV by the end of the decade.

For the moment, the Japanese are enjoying their head start. Honda was even passing out an "environment pack" in Frankfurt printed with edible ink on rice paper and bound with strawberry laces. Its main contention: "In the playgrounds around the world, 'how green?' may replace 'how fast?' as the most commonly asked question." If hybrid sales continue to take off, they shouldn't have to eat their words.