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SUV Hybrid: Oxymoron or Optimal?

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The Sports Utility Vehicle: Dangerous behemoth, wasteful gas-guzzler—and enormously popular.  The SUV has been vilified as the most blatant example of American over-consumption and environmental disregard. But the extra space and comfort is, let's admit it, too compelling for many American drivers to give up.

This leaves many car shoppers with a dilemma: How does one schlep family and friends around town and maintain a level of comfort for weekend getaways—without killing the environment and your gas card?  For some, the answer is a hybrid SUV, which delivers all the comfort of a large vehicle with the fuel consumption of a family sedan. 

Hybrid purists may characterize the hybrid SUV as an oxymoron on par with a supersized meal ordered with a 72-ounce diet soda.  Fine, but we all do our own part in our own way.  Leave the moralizing to the holier-than-thou crowd, and consider one of the growing number of hybrid SUVs available in auto showrooms today.

Ford Escape Hybrid — Most Efficient Overall
The Ford Escape Hybrid is the most efficient hybrid SUV on the market. The front-drive Escape Hybrid has U.S. government fuel economy ratings of 34 in the city and 30 on the highway. The all-wheel-drive version offers 29 city/27 highway.  Those numbers alone make the Escape Hybrid worthy of a test drive, despite some owners expressing disappointment with handling.  Upscale versions also are available as the Mercury Mariner Hybrid and Mazda Tribute Hybrid.

Saturn Vue Green Line — Affordability
The pitch for the Saturn Vue Green Line is "the most affordable SUV hybrid." In other words, this Vue appeals to your inner accountant. The numbers would impress any CPA. For $24,200, the Green Line delivers EPA fuel economy ratings of 25 mpg in town and 32 on the highway, which is the highest highway rating for any sport utility. It's not the most exciting SUV hybrid, because it's currently the only one in the bunch that is a so-called "mild hybrid"—meaning that it can't launch forward in all-electric mode.

Toyota Highlander Hybrid — Seats Seven
The 2008 version of this versatile SUV grants more room and better packaging, while keeping its green stripes. Power for the Highlander Hybrid comes from a 3.3-liter gasoline V6 engine, which when combined with the electric motors boosts overall horsepower to a very respectable 270. The EPA rating for the Highlander Hybrid is 27 city/25 highway. The biggest draw is the Highlander's interior space. The optional third-row bench seat folds flat into the floor or pops up to make room for seven passengers.

Lexus RX400h — Luxury
The Lexus RX 400h is a gas-electric hybrid version of the RX 350 crossover vehicle. This handsome SUV gives any greeny with expense taste—or successful executive with green aspirations—something that no other vehicle line offers: a mid-size luxury hybrid utility.  The RX 400h is powered by a 3.3-liter V-6 engine and the latest version of Toyota's Hybrid Synergy Drive. The RX 400h can reach 60 mph in 7.3 seconds, tow up to 3500 pounds, and has fuel economy of 27 in the city and 24 on the highway for front-drive models. The all-wheel-drive model rates at 26 city/24 highway.

Chevrolet Tahoe Hybrid — Full-Size SUV
The Chevrolet Tahoe Hybrid and its GMC counterpart, the Yukon Hybrid, are the first vehicles to utilize the advanced two-mode hybrid powertrain developed jointly by BMW, DaimlerChrysler, and General Motors. This full-size SUV launches a new breed of larger vehicles that are significantly greener than their gas-powered versions. Maybe that's why the Tahoe Hybrid received the questionable title of "Green Car of the Year" at the 2007 Los Angeles Auto Show. The Tahoe Hybrid two-wheel drive model has an EPA rating of 22 on the highway and 21 in the city—a city rating equivalent to that of a four-cylinder Toyota Camry.

Durango/Aspen — Towing Capacity
The conventional Dodge Durango is the quintessential, work-hard, play-hard, do-anything SUV—except when filling up a 13-mpg vehicle means it's smarter to leave it parked in the driveway. To avoid this dilemma, the Durango now is offered as a hybrid. The Durango Hybrid is expected to achieve fuel economy ratings of 18 in the city and 19 on the highway. The Durango's powertrain will add electric motors to Chrysler's 5.7-liter Hemi V-8. That's right. It's a Hemi hybrid. The result is solid pulling power and a tow limit of 6,000 pounds. That may fall short of the non-hybrid Durango's 8,950-pound capacity, but it's still quite respectable.

Other hybrid SUVs in the works:  BMW X6, Porsche Cayenne Hybrid, and Cadillac Escalade Hybrid.

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SUV Hybrid: Oxymoron or Optimal? - Autotrader