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Last Updated: Thursday, 27 May, 2004, 17:22 GMT 18:22 UK
New engines threaten petrol's dominance
By Tim Fawcett and Jorn Madslien
BBC News Online business reporters at the Birmingham Motorshow

Rover 75 Limousine
The Rover 75 limousine goes head-to-head with Rolls-Royce

MG Rover's first self-made limousine, on display for the first time at the Birmingham motorshow, is hailed as a budget version for the price conscious executive.

The idea would be to "gain respect for having spent his money wisely", an official told the BBC.

The stretched Rover 75 has the "same interior measurements as a Rolls-Royce Phantom, but comes at a tenth of the price", he said.

And with an LPG conversion - that is, a rebuild which makes the engine run on either petrol or liquefied petroleum gas - the car becomes both environmentally friendly and exempt from London's congestion charge.

Fuel for thought

With oil prices at record levels and petrol prices hovering near record highs too, the budget savvy executive could do worse than look to the Rover 75 limousine - which is nine inches longer than the standard car.

Toyota Prius
Toyota Prius looks similar under the bonnet and feels the same to drive

Prime Minister Tony Blair has two for official engagements, apparently, though when asked to confirm this, MG Rover's representative haughtily declined to comment.

The Queen is an LPG fan too, though hers is a Rolls-Royce, according to the campaigning group Boost LPG.

Even service station owners are fond of LPG, since it is much more profitable than petrol or diesel.

A litre of petrol sold at more than 80p will earn a service station no more than 23p, while a litre of LPG priced at about 36p will bring in 18p profits to the vendor, The Greenfuel Company's director Noel Lock told BBC News Online.

Hard to find

And yet, many drivers in the UK remain blissfully ignorant about LPG.

Honda Civic hybrid engine
Honda Civic hybrid adds an electric motor to its existing petrol engine

Few know, for example, that fuel expenses are roughly halved following an LPG conversion which costs about 2,000.

Nor is it commonly known that not only is there virtually no performance loss from a conversion, it is even good for the car's engine.

But perhaps the main reason why most people shy away from LPG conversions is that it is sometimes difficult to find a garage that sells the fuel.

Currently, no more than a tenth of UK's service stations sell LPG.

"It's not perfect, but we're getting there," said Mr Lock.

Petrol-electric hybrids

At the motorshow, the rash display of power and speed conflicts harshly with the greener thinking behind the alternative vehicles on display.

Although cleaner than conventional engines, LPG is still a fossil fuel-burning technology, so the search is on for other ways to reduce emissions.

Japanese carmaker Toyota is ahead of the pack with its hybrid Prius model, which combines a small petrol engine with an electric motor.

Not only is the Prius exempt from London's congestion charge, it has also been a hit with politically correct trendsetters in Hollywood.

"Cameron Diaz, Leonardo DiCaprio and Harrison Ford have all arrived at film premiers in Prius cars," Toyota GB's managing director Graham Smith told BBC News Online, describing the car as "an important step on the road to the holy grail of emission free transport in the future".

Laggards

But the hybrid option is a step which some major carmakers remain slow to take.

SUVs in New York
The American people are loath to switch to small cars

General Motors will not have a proper hybrid in place until 2007, and its stop-gap version that merely allows the petrol engines on its Chevy Silverado pickups to shut down while waiting for the lights to turn green has been described as laughable by critics.

Ford, too, has been slow off the mark but is catching up fast after it recently licensed hybrid technology from Toyota, while also giving a bit of its own technology back.

Honda, on the other hand, is more in tune with Toyota, having introduced a hybrid version of its flagship Civic model.

"The way we do it is bolt the electric motor on the end of the standard petrol engine and in the Civic we have a mass market hybrid car that isn't weird," Honda's Will Slater told BBC News Online.

Large hybrids

A hybrid Honda Accord is due next, and competitor Nissan is launching a hybrid Altima next year.

It all seems great news for the world's environment.

But rather than concerns about pollution, the main reason why more and more people want to buy hybrid cars is fuel prices.

That has been true for a long time in Europe, where the switch to a hybrid Prius or a Civic may be particularly appealing.

And recently, it became the new dogma in the US too after petrol prices there rose above $2 a gallon.

But in America, drivers are loath to give up their big cars.

This has spurred both Ford and Toyota's luxury car subsidiary Lexus to launch hybrid sports utility vehicles (SUVs).

The hybrid SUVs are expected to travel about 40 miles on a gallon of petrol, roughly double the distance of a conventional SUV, according to some estimates.

Ford's Escape Hybrid will be first when it is launched this summer, and the Lexus RX400 SUV, a "third generation hybrid technology 4X4", will arrive next spring.


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