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.

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