DETROIT -- Ford Motor Co.'s introduction of a gas-electric hybrid sport utility vehicle is a good start, but will have little immediate impact on its dismal fuel economy record, U.S. environmental groups said on Wednesday.
The fuel-sipping version of Ford's compact Escape SUV goes into commercial production this week and environmental activists hailed it as a step in the right direction.
But they said Ford -- which has a U.S. car and truck fleet with the lowest average fuel economy among the top six automakers -- would have to go much further to win recognition as a company truly committed to the environment.
"The hybrid Escape is a rolling advertisement for better technology and a cleaner environment," David Hamilton, director of the Sierra Club's Global Warming and Energy Program, said in a statement.
Like other environmentalists, he noted that Ford initially plans on building just 20,000 hybrid Escapes a year -- a blip in Ford's total annual vehicle production.
"We look forward to helping build demand for these vehicles and encourage Ford to put this gas-saving technology to work on all their vehicles," Hamilton said.
Ford sources have said the company will initially sell the hybrid Escape at a loss because of high development costs.
Ford spokeswoman Kristen Kinley said the second-largest U.S. automaker plans to introduce two other hybrid vehicles in the near future, however, and added that the company was "aggressively pursuing" better fuel economy.
"We feel that the hybrid Escape is one very strong example of that," she said.
NO ESCAPING OIL
Elisa Lynch of Bluewater Network, a group that works to cut dependence on fossil fuels, called Ford's hybrid Escape SUV "a brilliant advertisement for better technology," picking up on the same theme as the Sierra Club's Hamilton.
But selling just one limited-production model of hybrid "won't help the company escape the fact that they still have the worst fuel economy of any major automaker," she said.
"While Ford introduces its new hybrid, they continue to aggressively market a fleet of gas-guzzling cars and trucks," Lynch said. "These vehicles could have dramatically improved fuel efficiency using even just off-the-shelf conventional technologies."
She spoke in a conference call with reporters and other environmentalists, including one, Jennifer Krill of the Rainforest Action Network, who branded Ford "a public danger" because of its "oil addiction."
"We liken Ford's hybrid Escape release to an alcoholic going from 20 drinks a day to 19 drinks a day," Krill said. "Ford cannot Escape its oil dependence with a few thousand hybrid SUVs."
Toyota Motor Corp. is the leader in hybrid vehicle technology, followed by Honda Motor Co. Ltd.
Toyota President Fujio Cho told reporters at the Management Briefing Seminars in Traverse City, Mich., on Wednesday that the company hopes to sell 300,000 hybrid vehicles next year.