"Hold on to your hat!" Jim Burns shouted as he slammed the accelerator to the floor. With a high-pitched whine, the electric motor behind my seat burst into action, and "the Enigma" - an experimental red sports car in which I was riding shotgun - bolted forward, pressing me back into my leather seat. In about three seconds we were whipping through the San Diego State University campus at 50 miles an hour.
"We built her really low, so she totally hugs the ground," Burns said as we coasted to a stop at a large intersection near Highway 8. "Watch this." When the light turned green, he floored it again while yanking the steering wheel to the left so that in the middle of the intersection we performed two 360-degree doughnuts, complete with white smoke pouring off the shrieking back wheels. The nearby drivers stared. Giggling, Burns, a mechanical-engineering professor, straightened the wheel and roared out of the intersection; a stolen glance backward revealed that we had left a thick trail of burned rubber on the asphalt. We finally coasted to a halt near his campus laboratory, where a team of students was waiting with a video camera.
"Dude, that was awesome!" one of them blurted.
This, Burns argues, is the future of hybrids. Americans will never accept them if they remain small, meek vehicles like the Toyota Prius or the Honda Insight, which have low top speeds and lackluster pulling power. No, if hybrids are going to appeal to red-meat drivers across the country, they'll need power and performance. "We've got to produce a car that gets a 14-year-old boy excited," Burns said, flashing a bucktoothed grin as he sweated beneath the sun in a loud Hawaiian shirt. "We got to have the smoking! The squealing! The tires popping off!"
Burns is not alone in this belief. Indeed, in the last year the auto industry has decided to drastically bulk up its hybrids. Carmakers are ditching the bumper-car designs that have thus far defined the genre, and in the next two years, every new hybrid that hits the showroom will be a lumbering truck, a thundering S.U.V. or a high-powered luxury car. There is nary a podlike bubble among them. Normally these sorts of boats are infamous for their abysmal fuel economy. But when tricked out with hybrid drivetrains, they can squeeze up to 50 percent more out of a tank of gas. In essence, they are a compromise - nowhere near as good with fuel as a Prius but nowhere near as bad as a regular S.U.V. gas guzzler.
Eventually we can hope to see cars that are good on all three metrics, cars we can truly love!