TOKYO — For automakers, the hybrid powertrain is starting to feel as inevitable as death and taxes. Every manufacturer is working on one, whether it wants to or not.
Engineers say that hybrid powertrains are complex and expensive, with a big battery pack to put somewhere. Some think that modern diesels are a better bet — clean, less expensive than a hybrid and efficient.
Yet hybrids have caught on with the public as the environmentally responsible choice, thanks in large part to Toyota's brilliant marketing. So other automakers are adding hybrids to their product plans:
- Nissan will introduce a hybrid-powered Infiniti model in the next few years.
- Hyundai is considering launching a hybrid-powered Elantra and a hybrid Sonata in the United States around 2010.
- In 2009, Honda plans to launch a new hybrid car — one not based on a gasoline version — to compete with the Prius, with annual volumes of 100,000 in North America.
- Mazda is experimenting with a hydrogen-powered hybrid, though it has no plans to market it.
- Meanwhile, Toyota sources say the automaker plans to offer a station wagon version of its next-generation Prius hybrid, which is due in 2009.
- At the show, Audi unveiled the Metroproject quattro, a plug-in hybrid concept that hints at the company's future A1, a small, two-door car to be produced in 2009. The concept is powered by a gasoline engine mated to an electric motor and lithium ion batteries. There is no word yet on possible production plans for the plug-in version.
Even former skeptic Nissan CEO Carlos Ghosn is changing his tune about hybrids. Last week, Ghosn moderated his earlier criticism of the technology. He said he had no complaint about the technology itself but simply questioned whether Nissan could make money selling it.
"I don't think I was against it," Ghosn said of the technology. "Hybrids are very promising."