DETROIT – Hybrid electric vehicles don’t have to be high-mileage snoozers built solely to satisfy government mandates and cater to the environmentalist fringe movement.

HEVs can be fast, agile – and fun.

So says Ford Motor Co. engineer Anthony Grabowski, who ticks off ways to put more emotion into HEVs and broaden their appeal to more mainstream consumers.

Fun to drive hybrids? It’s possible, Ford engineer says.

"There are some common misconceptions about HEVs," he says during a panel on making cars functional and fun to drive at Convergence 2002. "And a lot of them have to do with people thinking they can’t be fun to drive and enjoyable to own."

Government mandates to increase fuel economy and reduce emissions are not mutually exclusive to providing buyers with vehicles that are quicker out of the blocks and more agile on the road, he says.

In parallel systems where the electric motor is used to augment drive provided by an internal combustion (IC) engine, HEVs can generate superior off-the-line acceleration, Grabowski notes.

As evidence, he sites two separate Ford hybrid test vehicles in which roughly twice the torque is generated when both electric and IC power is used at takeoff than with the IC engine alone.

And because of the power boost provided by the electric motor, there’s the opportunity for less frequent shifting of gears by the driver, he says.

Incorporating electric power steering also can provide better handling – and these systems can be tuned almost infinitely toward performance or comfort through simple tweaks to the software, Grabowski says. Electric steering also helps hike fuel economy 2% to 3%, he adds.

Use of regenerative braking improves stopping power and, incorporated with brake-by-wire, provides a better pedal for the driver, he says. These systems also can be integrated with other vehicle dynamics technology such as electronic stability systems.

Putting the electric motor at the axle not driven by the IC engine also can provide all-wheel drive, while cutting weight and inertia by eliminating the power takeoff unit and prop shaft needed in conventional AWD systems, says Grabowski.

Challenges remain, he admits. Chief among them, the difficulty in packaging additional components needed for hybrid systems, the tooling of those parts and the inherent cost of it all.

But if consumers are ever going to be convinced to pay the tab, auto makers will have to make the HEV a more feature-laden, performance-oriented proposition, Grabowski says.

"That may be the most important (thing)," he says. "We’ll never be able to drive all the cost out. The way (to sell HEVs) is to make the vehicles as fun to drive as possible."