SUVs becoming leaner, smaller and greener

SUVs becoming leaner, smaller and greenerDetroit - Derided as fuel-guzzling "climate killers" by the ecological movement, carmakers are under pressure to make their sports utility vehicles (SUVs) more fuel efficient with hybrid drive, fuel cells and alternative fuels.

Since 2005, there has been a clear trend away from the small SUV truck toward even smaller, more compact crossover models that combine the positive offroad qualities with those of a traditional estate car such as the BMW X3, VW Tiguan and Honda CR-V.

Carmakers are using various technologies to improve the image and fuel efficiency of their SUVs and see a market segment for families who need to transport children, sport equipment and gardening equipment.

The giant US carmakers General Motors, Ford and Chrysler in particular are under pressure to launch more fuel-efficient vehicles.

In 2007, Ford presented a prototype plug-in electric drive version of the Ford Edge.

Fitted with a fuel cell, a hydrogen tank, two electric motors and a lithium-ion battery pack, the 2.5-ton vehicle has a 40-kilometre range on pure electric drive - enough for most daily commuter trips.

In addition, 4.5 kilograms of hydrogen fuel give it a range of 320 kilometres.

Ford emphasizes that many technical problems have yet to be overcome, and it will be a while before the SUV is available in showrooms.

The new Land Rover Freelander TD-4 comes with with stop-start technology which the company claims is the most economical SUV so far and will hit roads in early 2009.

It switches itself off automatically when stopped at a traffic light and put the gears into neutral for up to five minutes.

If you want to drive on, simply press the clutch to restart the engine.

Land Rover claims this saves 10 per cent on fuel.

In addition, the Freelander saves energy with an air-conditioning and power-steering shut-down system.

BMW plans to transfer its Efficient Dynamics fuel-saving technology to the X6 Active Hybrid next year.

Mercedes is planning an ML 450 Blue-Hybrid.

The two-mode hybrid offers electrical support at both lower and higher speeds, ensuring optimum use of torque in different driving conditions.

The two-mode hybrid system is the result of joint development between GM, Daimler and BMW in the Global Hybrid Cooperation Centre based in Troy, Michigan.

General Motors claims that its Chevy Tahoe Hybrid 2WD offers the same city fuel efficiency as a standard four-cylinder Toyota Camry. Also available early next year is the Silverado Hybrid.

Meanwhile, Asian manufacturers are launching models in liquid petroleum gas (LPG) versions to reduce carbon dioxide emissions such as the Subaru Forester and Hyundai Tucson.

Fuel-cell technology is also making progress.

Hyundai is working on a third-generation fuel cell based on the Tucson and Sante Fe with a 600 kilometre range.

Nissan is planning the serial sale of an X-Trail FCV with hydrogen fuel cell technology by 2015. It has undergone extensive testing since 2005.

The Lexus RX 400h from the Toyota stable was the first SUV with hybrid drive on offer.

Toyota, however, launched the Urban Cruiser crossover for the European market in a segment below the RAV4.

Although not equipped with hybrid or LPG, the manufacturer claims its small diesel engine emits only 133 grams of carbon dioxide per kilometre.

Audi is apparently looking at launching a full hybrid version of its new compact Q5 with some reports suggesting it would be available as soon as 2010.

It is also introducing what it claims is the world's cleanest diesel engine onto US highways with the Audi Q7 3.0 TDI.

It averaged 7.1 litres per 100 kilometres in a recent endurance test and complies with stringent Californian emission standards and the EURO 6 emission norm that takes effect in 2014 despite a power unit with an output of 221 horsepower. (dpa)