Jamie Lincoln Kitman: Best way to save gas may be to avoid hybrids
NYACK, N.Y. - If you make your way over to the Javits Convention Center for the New York International Automobile Show -- or if you've gone to any auto show in the last year or so -- you'll know that hybrid cars are the hippest automotive fashion statement to come along in years. They've become synonymous with the worthy goal of reducing gasoline consumption and dependence on foreign oil and all that this means for a better environment and more stable geopolitics. And yet like fat-free desserts, which sound healthy but can still make you fat, the hybrid car can make people feel as if they're doing something good, even when they're doing nothing special at all. As consumers and governments at every level climb onto the hybrid bandwagon, there is the very real danger of elevating the technology at the expense of the intended outcome -- saving gas.
Few things these days say "environmentally aware consumer" so loudly as the fuel-sipping Toyota Prius. With its two power sources -- one a gasoline-powered internal combustion engine, the other a battery-driven electric motor -- the bestselling Prius (and other hybrids sold by Honda and Ford and due soon from several other car makers) can go farther on a gallon and emit fewer pollutants in around-town use than most conventional automobiles, because under certain circumstances they run on battery power and consume less fuel. For this reason, federal, state and local governments have been bending over backward to encourage the sale of hybrids, with a bewildering array of tax breaks, traffic lanes and parking spaces dedicated to hybrid owners.
But just because a car has so-called hybrid technology doesn't mean it's doing more to help the environment or to reduce the country's dependence on imported oil than a nonhybrid car. The truth is, it depends on the hybrid and the nonhybrid cars you are comparing, as well as on how you use the vehicles. There are good hybrids and bad ones. Fuel-efficient conventional cars are often better than hybrid SUVs -- just look at how many miles per gallon the vehicle gets.
As a professional car-tester, which is to say a person who gets asked for unpaid car-buying advice nearly every day, I know these distinctions have already been lost on many car buyers. And I fear they're well on their way to being lost on our governments, too.
Lately, right-minded people have been telling me they're thinking about buying the Lexus 400H, a new hybrid SUV. When I say they'd get better mileage in some conventional SUVs, and even better mileage with a passenger car, they protest, "But it's a hybrid!" I remind them that the 21 miles per gallon I saw while driving the Lexus is not particularly brilliant, efficiency-wise -- hybrid or not. Because the Lexus 400H is a relatively heavy car and its electric motor is deployed to provide speed more than efficiency, it will never be a mileage champ.
The car that started the hybrid craze, the Toyota Prius, is lauded for squeezing 40 or more miles out of a gallon of gas, and it really can. But only when it's being driven around town, where its electric motor does its best and most active work. On a cross-country excursion in a Prius, the staff of Automobile Magazine discovered, mileage plummeted on the Interstate. In fact, the car's computer, which controls the engine and the motor, allowing them to run together or separately, was programmed to direct the Prius to spend most of its highway time running on gasoline because at higher speeds the batteries quickly get exhausted. Indeed, the gasoline engine worked so hard that we calculated we might have used less fuel on our journey if we had been driving Toyota's conventionally powered, similarly sized Corolla -- which costs thousands less. For the owner who does the majority of her driving on the highway, the Prius' potential for fuel economy will never be realized and its price premium never recovered.
For years, most of the world's big carmakers have shied away from building hybrids because while technologically intriguing, they are also an inelegant engineering solution -- the use of two energy sources assures extra weight, extra complexity and extra expense (as much as $6,000 more per car.) The hybrid car's electric battery packs rob space from passengers and cargo, and although they can be recycled, not every owner can be counted on to do the right thing at the end of their vehicle's service life. And an unrecycled hybrid battery pack, which weighs more than 100 pounds, poses a major environmental hazard.
So the ideal hybrid car is one that is used in town and carefully disposed of at the end of its days. Hybrid taxis and buses make enormous sense. But the market knows no such distinctions. People think they want hybrids and they'll buy them, even if a conventional car would make more sense for their pocketbook and for the environment. The danger is that automakers will co-opt the hybrids' green mantle and, with the help of a government looking to bail out its troubled friends in Detroit, misguidedly encourage the sale of hybrids without reference to their actual effect on oil consumption.
Several bills floating around Congress have proposed tax incentives to buyers of hybrid cars, irrespective of gas mileage. Thus, under one failed but sure to resurface formulation, the suburbanite who buys a hypothetical hybrid Dodge Durango that gets 14 miles per gallon instead of 12 thanks to its second, electric power source would be entitled to a huge tax incentive, while the buyer of a conventional, gas-powered Honda Civic that delivers 40 mpg on the open road gets none.
And under some imaginable patchwork of state and local ordinances, the Durango buyer might get a special parking space at the train station and the right to use a high-occupancy-vehicle lane, despite appalling fuel economy and a car full of empty seats, while the Honda driver will have to walk to the train from a distant parking lot after braving the worst of morning rush hour traffic on the highway just like everybody else.
Pro-hybrid laws and incentives sound nice, but they might just end up subsidizing companies that have failed to develop truly fuel-efficient vehicles at the expense of those that have had the foresight to design their cars right in the first place. And they may actually punish citizens who save fuel the old-fashioned way -- by using less of it, with smaller, lighter and more efficient cars. All the while, they'll make a mockery of a potentially useful technology.
Jamie Lincoln Kitman is the New York bureau chief for Automobile Magazine and a columnist for Top Gear, a British magazine. He wrote this article for the New York Times.