The Marketplace Report: Ford's Hot Hybrid SUV

Ford's new gas-electric hybrid SUV, the Ford Mercury Mariner, went on sale Monday. The vehicle costs $4,000 more than the equivalent gas-only version, but sales are hot. Madeleine Brand talks with Tess Vigeland of Marketplace about an endorsement from the Sierra Club that might be helping sales.

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MADELEINE BRAND, host:

Back now with DAY TO DAY. I'm Madeleine Brand.

Ford has a new hybrid SUV out. The gas-electric model called the Mercury Mariner began selling yesterday. It costs $4,000 more than the gas-only version, but so far, sales are brisk, and that could be in part because of the endorsement of a former adversary, the Sierra Club. "Marketplace's" Tess Vigeland joins us now.

And, Tess, the Sierra Club used to be a fierce critic of Ford, so is this a detente of sorts?

TESS VIGELAND reporting:

Yeah, actually, it is a bit of a detente. The Sierra Club actually went as far as to send out an e-mail to about 300,000 of its members alerting them to this new vehicle, and it's going to show it, along with some other hybrids, at a conference this fall. And the contrast is pretty stark here. Several years ago, the group presented Ford with what it calls its Exxon Valdez award for the Ford Excursion SUV, but the Sierra Club's Dan Becker says the automaker is doing better.

Mr. DAN BECKER (Sierra Club): It's not every day that we're able to applaud an action by Ford Motor Company, but we've been urging them to make cleaner cars that go further on a gallon of gas, and now they've done it, and we want to recognize that and bring it to people's attention.

VIGELAND: And the Mariner, by the way, is supposed to be getting about 33 miles to the gallon. That's about 50 percent better than the gas-only version, and it'll be for sale online.

BRAND: And, Tess, does this mean more automakers will look to make some hybrid cars?

VIGELAND: Most likely. In fact, the National Auto Dealers Association is predicting that hybrid sales, which are now at about 1 percent of overall car sales, that they will double to a whopping 2 percent in the next five years. Roger Hart of AutoWeek magazine says that American carmakers are finally learning from the Japanese.

Mr. ROGER HART (AutoWeek): Honda and Toyota certainly have the lead in hybrids, but General Motors has some hybrids coming out in their pickup trucks, and the trend is just going to continue, and as with any business, the more products that are manufactured and sold, the price on this technology will come down, and that'll make it to be affordable across a wider range of vehicles.

VIGELAND: And the Mariner will be selling for just shy of $30,000 sticker price. As you said, that's about $4,000 above the gas-only version of this car, this SUV.

BRAND: So you said that Ford is selling these cars online. So how do you give it a test-drive that way?

VIGELAND: You probably aren't going to be able to actually, Madeleine. Right now, this particular SUV is supposed to be ordered online. You go find the dealership online. You haggle over the price online and then you go pick it up. In some regions, if you happen to get lucky, you might be able to find a dealership that has it for a day and test-drive it, but overall, you're not going to be able to do that. No kicking the tires, no testing out the radio and that sort of thing. And they're only selling 2,000 of them for this particular model year, so only online.

And, Madeleine, today on "Marketplace," we're looking at the 10th anniversary of Netscape's IPO.

BRAND: All right. Well, Tess Vigeland of public radio's daily business show "Marketplace," and "Marketplace" is produced by American Public Media. Thanks, Tess.

VIGELAND: Thank you.

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