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What are the trends in commercial vehicles for the coming year? Safety and security features, greener engines with flexible fuel capability, more power and more hybrids are hallmarks of 2007's light trucks. Commercial vehicles are safer than ever. More structural safety features are built in, while mechanical components raise safety to a new standard. Air bags on the sides of seats, curtain-style air bags in the roofline and additional air bags for rear passengers are now standard or optional in many vehicles. The National Highway Traffic and Safety Administration is stepping up tests for rollovers, side impacts and other safety issues, leading manufacturers to respond with improved electronic stability control and other passenger safety systems.
In response to consumer demand, flexible and alternative fuels are new options on light trucks, including Ford's F-150, whose versatile power-plant runs on a mixture of gasoline and ethanol, typically 15 percent gasoline and 85 percent ethanol (E85). But unlike hybrids, fuel economy for ethanol-powered vehicles is lower than in gas-powered engines. For example, the 2006 GMC Yukon with the standard engine achieves 15 mpg city/20 mpg highway, but only 16 city/21 highway with the E85 option; however, E85 is environmentally friendlier and thus more desirable.
The number of hybrid vehicles on the market is increasing dramatically. Available hybrids now include Chevrolet Silverado and GMC Sierra pickups, the Mercury Mariner SUV and the Toyota Camry fleet sedan hybrid (Toyota is also bringing hybrid technology to its pickup trucks). The Saturn Vue Green Line Hybrid SUV is the lowest-priced SUV hybrid on the market (as of press time). The Ford Escape and Mercury Mariner hybrids achieve their best fuel economy in the city, making them good choices for urban fleets.
Meanwhile, tax breaks on Toyota Prius hybrids are slowing down. The IRS Hybrid credits , ranging from $250 to $3,150, decrease by 50 percent after a manufacturer has sold 60,000 hybrids, and eventually disappear altogether--Toyota and Lexus estimate their hybrid tax discount will cease in October 2007. The good news: Several light hybrid trucks, including the Chevrolet Silverado, GMC Sierra, Mercury Mariner and Ford Escape, will still qualify in 2007. Keep in mind that if vehicles are leased, the leasing company may claim the credit.
A new energy law gives clean diesel vehicles the same tax incentives as hybrids. On January 1, 2007, new EPA regulations require more stringent emissions standards for diesel engines, and dealers are urging buyers to purchase vehicles before that date to avoid potential price increases as manufacturers cover their costs of meeting the new standards. However, some older diesel engines can be retrofitted to comply.
Dodge adds biodiesel fuel capability to its Ram pickup trucks with Cummins diesel engines purchased for commercial fleets, using B20 (20 percent biodiesel), a clean, renewable diesel fuel. The Dodge Sprinter van uses B2 (2 percent bio-diesel), and Dodge is testing a plug-in hybrid version in a few states. The Dodge Durango SUV and Chrysler minivan hybrids are available to fleet customers only. Chevy's E85 vehicles available for fleet customers include the Express and GMC Savana vans.
Ford has redesigned its Expedition, and it has a best-in-class payload of 1,800 pounds. Toyota's Tacoma is roomier, and the new Tundra debuts next month. GMC's new Sierra was released recently. Chevrolet supercharged the Silverado SS Classic and TrailBlazer SS pickup and midsize SUV, and celebrates 2007 with all-new versions of the Avalanche, Suburban and Tahoe SUVs. Dodge debuts the new Caliber SUV. The Hummer H3 receives a Vortec 3.7-liter 242-horsepower engine, and the limited edition H2 comes with a rear-vision camera. Chevrolet's new HHR van with windowless side panels is perfect for commercial use--it has 57 cubic feet of flat floor cargo plus 5 cubic feet of underfloor storage. Mileage is a satisfying 30 mpg average. The all-electric, street-legal GEM vehicles--used for shuttles and moving cargo around warehouses, industrial sites and business parks--add a six-passenger model for 2007.
On the financial front, manufacturers of large SUVs and pickup trucks are offering no-interest loans; Dodge's incentive programs offer $500 mail-in coupons and free upfit packages on select models; and during June and July, Ford gave buyers a fuel card that guaranteed gas for $1.99 a gallon for up to six months.
Need plenty of passenger seats or mammoth cargo space? Check out the Dodge Sprinter with seating for 10 passengers and a rear door that opens at a 270-degree angle for easy loading. The Dodge Grand Caravan cargo van has a special commercial suspension and provides up to 160.7 cubic feet of cargo space and up to 5,700 gross vehicle weight rating on the long-wheelbase version. Chrysler is offering a 30-day return guarantee, although you may have to pay for that one month of use plus license and registration fees.