And the link between emissions and climate change has also pricked a few consciences in the motor industry, with many considering a greener car in a bid to do their part for the environment, if only because it might keep fuel bills down.
Running a greener vehicle can be achieved in several ways but one area which is really taking off – and is most likely to succeed, according to experts – is hybrid technology.
Hybrid systems combine a traditional engine, usually petrol, with electric power, with the units operating independently or together, depending on driving conditions or the vehicle design.
They often use regenerative braking, which means that energy is put back into the battery during braking, improving energy efficiency and reducing brake wear on the vehicle.
Drivers simply fill up with petrol at traditional filling stations and with regular maintenance the battery should last for the life of the car.
Although sales of hybrids are performing well, the range available has been limited to lower-medium contenders such as the Toyota Prius and Honda Civic IMA.
#AM_ART_SPLIT# Toyota recently announced record sales of its Prius, with 1,046 units sold so far in the UK this year, more than double the 484 units sold in the first quarter of 2004. However, things are finally beginning to change. Lexus recently launched the RX400h. Traditionally seen as heavy-duty petrol or diesel drinkers, SUVs and off-roaders are not typically known for their environmental attributes.
But Lexus has put a stop to the 4x4 stereotype with its RX400h which when stationary or coasting, does not use any fuel.
The RX400h uses a Hybrid Synergy Drive (HSD) system – a 3.3-litre V6 petrol engine with a 165bhp electric motor, a high voltage battery and a generator. There is also a second electric motor which introduces all-wheel drive when the car determines extra traction is needed.
When running on its electric motor during initial acceleration and at low to mid-range speeds, the RX400h delivers zero exhaust emissions.
Hybrids are now expected to become even more high profile as a luxury petrol-electric hybrid GS saloon could be on the market by 2006, following a move recently announced by Lexus parent company Toyota.
The new models should boost sales and open the environmentally-friendly technology up to a wider audience, which has so far been limited.
Lexus is hoping that its new RX400h and GS will compete with European luxury carmakers including Mercedes-Benz and BMW.
Currently, only petrol/electric hybrids are available, but some manufacturers are looking at the feasibility of electric power combined with diesel engines, making even more fuel economy gains.
#AM_ART_SPLIT# Mercedes-Benz is one manufacturer which is looking at launching a range of hybrid models combining electric power with diesel engines. It is still developing the vehicles but confirmed they are in an advanced stage of design.
A spokesman said that there were no plans to put the system in the new S-class, but they were looking at models where its offer of power and economy would be well suited, such as SUVs.
He says: "All the manufacturers are looking at this and we are developing the technology, but we do not have a definite decision on which vehicles the system would appear in."
Others that have shown their hand by unveiling hybrid units include General Motors, which revealed a concept diesel hybrid Vauxhall Astra at the Geneva Motor Show earlier this year.
Toyota and Honda have shown that offering a hybrid petrol/electric power system in an everyday car is viable, with their Prius and Civic IMA respectively and sales are constantly climbing.
In April, Honda announced it had sold 100,000 units of its Civic and Insight hybrid cars worldwide since launching its first model in 1999.
The manufacturer also recently announced that it is planning a hybrid version of every model within five years as part of a massive investment in green cars.
Toyota also has a similar success story and the group recently announced that from the second half of 2006 it would produce hybrid vehicles in North America for the first time in its history.
By doing this Toyota aims to spread the use of high-performance hybrid vehicles. The Toyota Prius, launched in North America in 2000, was the very first mass-produced hybrid vehicle.
The second-generation Prius was launched in 2003 and North American cumulative sales of the Prius reached 147,000 units by the end of March 2005.
#AM_ART_SPLIT# Is anybody buying hybrid-power cars?
High profile figures such as MPs and celebrities are having an impact on hybrid sales.
Ministers running cars including petrol and diesel Rovers and Jaguars are now being offered electric-hybrids as the Government strives to meet targets on CO2 emissions.
Nine Ministers have so far taken delivery of the petrol-electric Toyota Prius hybrids since the Government Car Service began offering them on choice lists, but there are plans to introduce more onto the 80-strong Government fleet this year. A spokesman for Toyota said: ‘The Prius has been introduced through the Government’s fleet policy list for junior ministers. It is encouraging that nine have already opted for it.
Two more have been ordered and we estimate that the department will take on 25 by the end of the year.’
The residual values on hybrids are expected to perform well, according to Martin Ward, manufacturer relationship manager at residual value expert CAP. There is limited data available as hybrids are still seen as a niche market but the Lexus RX400h, for example, is predicted to retain 40% of its value after three years/60,000 miles.
Ward says: “Residual values on hybrids are holding up. They are not worth less than petrol models, although a good diesel will perform better than a hybrid.”
A host of celebrity hybrid owners are also making environmentally friendly vehicles more appealing to a younger generation. Hybrid owners include Gwyneth Paltrow, Dustin Hoffman and Jennifer Lopez.
#AM_ART_SPLIT# Phill Tromans presents a round-up of who offers what in the hybrid power stakes:
Currently available: Nothing in the UK. Escape Hybrid petrol/electric SUV was 2005 North American Truck of the Year.
Future plans: HyTrans, a micro-hybrid diesel Transit research van, was unveiled earlier this year. A decision on European production will be made in 2006. The Mercury Mariner Hybrid, a compact SUV, will be launched in the United States next year.
Ford comments: ‘The European market and consumer driving habits are very different to those in America, and in our markets, hybrid technology does not represent such a clear-cut advantage over other technologies.’
Currently available: Civic IMA (Integrated Motor
Assist), running a 1.4-litre petrol engine with an electric motor/generator, priced at £15,225.
Future plans: 2006 will bring an all-new Civic Hybrid using a 1.4-litre iVTEC engine combined with the IMA system. It promises a 20% increase in power, better performance and fuel economy and lower emissions, all in a more compact size.
Honda comments: ‘Hybrids are definitely the future. They work very well in the UK market. There are not any drawbacks that we can see.’
Currently available: Nothing.
Future plans: A diesel-electric hybrid is at the advanced stages of design.
Mercedes-Benz comments: ‘All the manufacturers are looking at this and we are developing the technology, but we do not have a definite decision on which vehicles the system would appear in.’
Currently available: Nothing.
Future plans: Nothing is planned for the UK, but a petrol/electric Altima saloon is due for release in the US in 2006.
Nissan comments: ‘We are exploring the development of vehicles powered by other means which includes hybrids but also fuel cell and diesel as well. For the foreseeable future we are looking at all options.’
Currently available: Nothing.
Future plans: None for hybrids. An electric power system is in development, as is a hydrogen-powered motor.
Peugeot comments: ‘Peugeot does not have any immediate hybrid programmes.’
Currently available: Nothing.
Future plans: Nothing.
Renault comments: ‘Renault has no plans at the moment to develop a hybrid vehicle. Our strategy is in progress but there are no plans at this stage.’
Currently available: Prius, with petrol/electric Hybrid Synergy Drive. A hybrid Estima (Previa in UK) is on sale in Japan. RX400h with petrol/electric Hybrid Synergy Drive (HSD).
Future plans: 10 Lexus and Toyota hybrids are planned for 2010, although there has been no decision on what models as yet. HSD-powered GS450h, with more than 300bhp, is due for launch in 2006.
Toyota comments: ‘Hybrid technology is very much a part of our medium to long-term future. Using a hybrid system is a very good mix of power, economy and very low emissions.’
Currently available: Nothing. Developed a diesel-electric hybrid research vehicle some time ago.
Future plans: None.
Volkswagen said: ‘We are concentrating on refining existing technologies.’
Currently available: Nothing in the UK.
Future plans: A concept diesel hybrid Astra Sporthatch was unveiled earlier this year and the next generation production Astra could include a hybrid model. A hybrid powertrain is being developed with Daimler-Chrysler.
Vauxhall comments: ‘We are still heavily committed to fuel cells because we know they are the cleanest and most reliable form of long-term alternative propulsion. Hybrids are a short-term fix while fuel cell infrastructure is developed.’