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GM and DaimlerChrysler Want to Play

It's time to put the old saw to the test. Is it truly "better late than never"?

As fellow Fool Nathan Parmelee gently reminded the auto industry back in April, the party's already started in hybrid-car land. Toyota (NYSE: TM  ) , Honda (NYSE: HMC  ) , and Ford (NYSE: F  ) are doing the (gas-and-) electric slide all the way to the bank. General Motors (NYSE: GM  ) and DaimlerChrysler (NYSE: DCX  ) are considerably more than fashionably late. However, according to a report published on CNN/Money last night, the world's No. 1 and No. 5 automakers have finally decided to get their rears in gear (so to speak) and get serious about designing real hybrid automobiles.

For the record, GM's current offerings, the "weak hybrid" (read "fake hybrid") Silverado and its Sierra twin, do not count. Even judging by the overly generous miles-per-gallon estimates accorded them by the Environmental Protection Agency, these faux hybrids save their owners at most two miles per gallon, and often just one mile, in fuel efficiency. Is that worth the extra cost of a hybrid over an ordinary automatic model, when any stick-trained driver can just buy a manual transmission truck and get even better mileage?

I think not.

GM and DaimlerChrysler are finally coming around to that way of thinking as well. They seem to have realized that you can slap as many "hybrid" stickers as you want on a vehicle, but even if you succeed in selling the hype, you're just going to wind up with disappointed and irate car buyers.

And so, after months of wrangling over the details, the German and American car giants confirmed that on Aug. 22, they concluded a definitive agreement to co-develop a new breed of hybrids. The new technology, dubbed "two-mode," aims to increase both acceleration and fuel economy by 25%. Strangely, though, according to the EPA fuel efficiency chart, that doesn't seem to improve on the fuel savings already boasted by Honda and Ford's offerings. (Toyota's Prius has no non-hybrid analog, and its other hybrids are not listed on the EPA chart.) Both Honda's Civic and Ford's Escape boast 40% better fuel efficiency than their non-hybrid versions.

So to sum up, GM and DaimlerChrysler intend to sink their research dollars into producing a new hybrid engine, inferior in fuel efficiency to those on the market today. And they don't intend to have this new hybrid ready for market for another two years.

It brings to mind another old saying: "a day late and a pound short."

Fool contributor Rich Smith has no position in any of the companies mentioned in this article.

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