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Hybrid Cars Losing Efficiency, Adding Oomph

Brian Handwerk
for National Geographic News
August 8, 2005
 
Today President George W. Bush signed into law a U.S. energy bill with new tax credits for buyers of hybrid automobiles. But now that automakers have begun using the gas-electric technology to boost horsepower rather than miles per gallon, are hybrids turning a paler shade of green?

"Up until just about a year ago we thought we knew hybrids to be fuel-efficient, high-miles-per-gallon, moderately powered cars [like] the Honda Insight, Honda Civic Hybrid, and the Toyota Prius," said Bradley Berman, editor of HybridCars.com.

"Basically they were considered small, slow, and cheap."

Today eight different gasoline-electric hybrid consumer models are on U.S. roads, including performance sedans and luxury SUVs. That number is expected to more than double over the next two years as automakers increasingly use hybrid technology to woo not just conservationists but also mass-market consumers who value other features more highly than fuel efficiency.

Hybrid technology, like previous auto innovations, has been enlisted in the horsepower wars.

Automakers frequently adopt new technologies as ways of getting more power—acceleration, towing capability, passing ability—out of a gallon of gas, rather than getting more miles out of that same gallon of gas.

A recent U.S Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) report shows that in 2004 the average new vehicle in the U.S. rated 20.8 miles a gallon (8.8 kilometers a liter)—or about 6 percent less than the 22.1-miles-a-gallon (9.4-kilometers-a-liter) average of the late 1980s.

Engines have actually become more fuel efficient, but gains were swallowed when automakers increased power and boosted speed. The heavier average vehicle weights spawned by the SUV and light-truck boom also ate away at mileage gains that the more efficient engines might have made possible—it simply takes more fuel to propel a heavy vehicle.

New Hybrids Offer Power—But Lower MPG

Consumer Reports road tests found that the 2005 Honda Accord Hybrid saved just 2 miles a gallon (0.7 kilometers a liter) when stacked up against its V6 gas-only counterpart. The hybrid, though, did boast significant performance benefits, such as greater 0-to-60-miles-an-hour (0-to-96-kilometers-an-hour) acceleration.

The buyer's guide rated the Accord Hybrid at 25 miles a gallon (10.6 kilometers a liter), versus the conventional V6's 23 miles a gallon (9.8 kilometers a liter). That's a savings of just under 9 percent.

While such fuel savings aren't negligible, the model is a far cry from the first, superefficient hybrids. The Honda Insight, for example, boasted EPA mileage ratings of 70 miles a gallon (29.8 kilometers a liter) at its 1999 debut.

"We now have cars that are more fuel efficient, bigger, and faster," Berman said. "[Hybrid technology] provides a set of controls for automakers to dial up or dial down any of those features. The catch is that it's hard to dial them all up at the same time."

Some industry analysts see the shift as necessary to the rise of hybrids as more mainstream vehicles.

"Are some of the new models as parsimonious at the pump as the Prius? Of course not, but you're certainly better off than with a [conventional] vehicle that would give you comparable oomph," said Jon Coifman, spokesperson for the National Resources Defense Council in New York City.

"In the grand scheme it's going to be important that drivers don't automatically associate hybrids with sacrifice," he continued. "People want a little fun behind the wheel, and hybrids shouldn't be perceived as a hair shirt."

But for those who lament the fuel economy of some models, HybridCars.com's Berman says the next few years will only get more interesting.

Hybrid technology isn't one size fits all. Different models will offer an increasingly diverse suite of benefits.

"GM [which currently has no hybrid offerings] will enter the market with their ultramild hybrids," he said. "The first is the Saturn VUE SUV, which is basically not a full hybrid but a very inexpensive way to get about 10 percent more out of your fuel economy [for a price increase of a few hundred U.S. dollars]. Some people don't even call it a hybrid."

The growing number of choices and amenities may help the vehicles move into markets beyond mileage-driven early adopters.

"For the individual consumer, the comparison is to what they are driving now, the total bundle of features," Berman said. "There's a segment of the market that is perfectly ecstatic about having a car that's faster and a little bit more fuel efficient," he said. "From what I gather from e-mails and our discussion boards, people are happily trading cars that get 13 miles a gallon (5.5 kilometers a liter) for cars that get 25 miles a gallon (10.6 kilometers a liter)."

Even so-called full hybrids—which can travel on electricity alone part of the time—can be tuned for either far greater fuel efficiency or for higher power.

Automakers currently seem to be leaning toward horsepower. But someday such choices could go the other way or even be left up to individual drivers.

"We have a vision of the driver being able to hook up their laptop to a port to alter that profile and get the driving characteristics that they want," said Cindy Knight, spokesperson for Toyota in Torrance, California. "That's an idea for the future. Right now it takes a horde of technicians to do that."

Rosy Outlook for Green Hybrid Vehicles?

Soaring gasoline prices could mean a promising future for the hybrid market, and Toyota's hybrid models are already back-ordered. Yet hybrids account for only 1 percent of the U.S. automobile market, and no one is sure how mainstream acceptance of the vehicles may develop.

Some are more bullish than others.

Toyota president Katsuaki Watanabe has announced his hope to sell a million hybrids per year by early next decade. "At our current rate, that's about 600,000 hybrids in the United States," Toyota Motor Sales USA president Jim Press told last week's auto industry conference in Traverse City, Michigan.

Toyota officials said that, to reach that goal, some 25 percent of the company's vehicles would have to be hybrids. They added that ten new models are currently under development.

Some analysts believe that hybrid demand will tail off because only a fixed number of consumers will be willing to pay the $3,000 to $5,000 price premium the vehicles carry compared to similar conventional models.

Competition from more efficient diesels and conventional vehicles could also challenge hybrid growth, but some help is available courtesy of the U.S. Internal Revenue Service.

Currently, hybrid buyers are eligible for a federal tax deduction under the IRS's Clean Fuels program. Under a new U.S. energy bill signed into law by President George W. Bush today, they would be eligible for more valuable tax credits.

The bill promotes hybrid technology rather than fuel efficiency, so hybrid buyers could actually enjoy breaks at the expense of buyers who choose more efficient nonhybrid vehicles. The traditionally powered Toyota Corolla, for instance, gets better gas mileage than the Honda Accord Hybrid.

The new law also caps tax incentives at 60,000 vehicles per automaker before a year-2010 cutoff, which could curb the total numbers of hybrids sold. HybridCars.com reports that Toyota sold nearly 15,000 hybrids during July alone.

Still, most observers seemed to welcome any hybrid help from the U.S. government.

"We think it's a validation of hybrid technology," Toyota's Knight said. "The government is saying that they support it—and that's saying a lot."

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