For evidence that hybrid vehicles are coming into their own, look no further than the Mercury Mariner, which wasn't scheduled to hit the market until late 2006. It's now on its way by this fall, part of an overall strategy to almost double Lincoln and Mercury sales - to 500,000 from 300,000 annually - by 2010.
"Mariner hybrid is the smart, sophisticated solution to environmental responsibility," says Darryl Hazel, president of Lincoln Mercury. The Mariner shares its hybrid technology with its sister vehicle, the Ford Escape. It can accelerate to 25 miles per hour without help from the gasoline engine, giving it estimated fuel efficiency of 33 mpg in the city, 29 on the highway. The Mariner's amenities are in keeping with Mercury's more upscale image: heated leather seats, a system that senses objects behind the car when it's in reverse gear, power everything, even heated side mirrors.
Suggested retail: To be determined, but it'll be somewhere north of the Escape's sticker price.
4 Toyota Highlander
Get ready for summer vacation. The Highlander hybrid — expected in June — seats seven with a third-row seat that folds down for extra cargo. Its V6 gas-powered system will send you from zero to 60 in under eight seconds, but there’s enough fuel efficiency to get you 600 miles on a tank. You can bus the soccer team in an SUV rated as a Super Ultra Low Emission Vehicle by the Environmental Protection Agency.
Suggested retail: Prices are still being hammered out, but if you compare base prices of the gas-engine Highlander, you can expect a significant savings over the Lexus RX 400h.