Hybrid Cars Newsletter: Issue No. 024

Newsletter Archive Index

~~~ Hybrid Cars Newsletter: Issue No. 0024 ~~~
Moderator: Bradley Berman [brad@hybridcars.com]

Greetings, Hybrid Car Enthusiasts,
Have you ever tried to talk about climate change or oil dependency in a mixed crowd? It’s not easy to find the right words or strategy to convey the importance of a subject that so many people find irrelevant. I tried it recently at the Society of Automotive Engineers’ Hybrid Symposium last month in San Diego—and got a cold reaction. Maybe I was strident when humor would have been more effective. To remedy that situation on HybridCars.com, we introduced "Smiles Per Gallon," a weekly cartoon on the home page of HybridCars.com. Check it out and let us know what you think.

In this newsletter, I’ll share an account of what happened in San Diego, offer info about the next set of new hybrids, the most and least environmentally friendly vehicles of 2006, and highlights from the hybrid car blogosphere. Enjoy.

UPDATES
Available Hybrids

As we’ll discuss shortly, we’re still in a holding pattern of 10 hybrids on the market, with the Camry Hybrid and Saturn VUE Greenline expected in a few months. Consumer Reports, which has not been particularly kind to hybrids in the past, just came out with their annual vehicle guide—and lo and behold, the Toyota Highlander Hybrid was rated the top midsize SUV and the Toyota Prius took top honors as a "green car." The redesigned Honda Civic and the Honda Accord—both available in hybrid options—were the magazine’s top small sedan and family sedan, respectively.

Looking at the hybrid horizon, Honda wants to introduce the Honda Fit as a hybrid. The Japanese company would sell the car for around $11,800, which would make it the cheapest hybrid on the market. The hybrid version might not only be the most affordable but also the thriftiest with fuel: considering that the conventional 5-door hatchback delivers estimated fuel economy of 33 mpg in the city and 38 mpg on the highway, the hybrid version could break the 60 mpg barrier. Think of it as a more practical and much more affordable Honda Insight.

Preferred Hybrid Dealer Network…and Classifieds
If you’re in the market for a used hybrid, check out our growing used classified marketplace:

And if you’re looking for something new, start with a review of our preferred dealer list:

Calling All Dealers: Contact us for more information about how to join the network.

THE NEXT TWO HYBRIDS
Toyota Camry Hybrid

For all the excitement about hybrids in the past year, we haven’t seen a new model debut in showrooms since the Mercury Mariner hybrid was introduced last summer. By the time the next hybrid offerings—the Toyota Camry Hybrid and the Saturn VUE Greenline—actually hit American roads, there will have been nearly a full-year between real-world introductions. I’m not talking about auto show unveilings or concepts, but cars that buyers can drive off the lot.

This will change with back-to-back releases this summer. First up: the 2007 Toyota Camry Hybrid. You’ll never get accused of recklessness for buying a Toyota Camry. It’s safe, comfortable, dependable, relatively attractive and altogether predictable. And based on the sales numbers—more than 430,000 sold in the United States in 2005—Americans are happy with a reliable and affordable set of wheels for the family. In the Toyota Prius, the hybrid system was a bold move into unknown technology. The hybrid option on the Camry seems like a common-sense choice for an era when one storm—meteorological or political—could send gas prices past $3.

The Camry is not the first attempt at offering a hybrid in an ultra-popular model. In late 2004, Honda introduced a hybrid version of the Accord—America’s second most popular car behind the Camry. In the Accord lineup, the hybrid is the fastest and the priciest. The Camry Hybrid is neither. Those dubious honors go to the fully loaded sporty Camry SE—with a 3.5-liter engine delivering 268 horsepower, a 40 percent jump in acceleration over the 2006 model. The choice between speed and fuel economy is quite clear. Consumers who care about fuel economy can choose between the standard Camry’s four-cylinder combined highway/city mpg rating of 28 mpg; the V6′s mpg rating of 26; or the hybrid’s 40 mpg—all EPA numbers of course.

Toyota has not announced pricing for the Camry, but the hybrid is expected to go for just under $30,000. Toyota plans to sell 60,000 Camry Hybrids, or 15 percent of all Camry sales. Naysayers believe gas-electric hybrids will reach the limit of their market potential when the East Coast and West Coast fringe have bought their Priuses. The Camry Hybrid will test that premise like never before. Are 15 percent of mainstream American buyers willing to invest in a technology that will help the United States wean itself off oil and reduce our environmental impact? Are you in the 15th percentile?

> See details, specs, review quotes for the Toyota Camry Hybrid

Saturn VUE Greenline
The Saturn VUE Greenline is expected to arrive soon after the debut of the Camry Hybrid. Like the Camry, the 2007 Saturn VUE Green Line is an attempt to popularize hybrids—with price as the main hook. It’s the first G.M. vehicle to use the company’s Belt Alternator Starter system. Combined with regenerative braking and a modified 4-speed automatic transmission, the system will give what G.M. is calling the "mild hybrid" version of the VUE a 12-15 percent improvement in fuel economy, for several hundred dollars more than the base price.

The major dividing line used to be drawn between full hybrids, which can move forward solely on electric power, and mild hybrids, which require at least some gasoline to power the transmission. With the VUE Greenline, it gets even trickier to find that dividing line. The G.M. flywheel-alternator pickup trucks have been called "stop-start" hybrids, because they use the electric power only while idling or during vehicle deceleration. The trucks clearly do not qualify even as mild hybrids. According to Steve Tarnowsky, G.M. assistant chief engineer, the VUE Greenline "is a lot more than a stop-start system. It’s a real hybrid."

Ultimately, the proof is in the pudding. For hybrids, that means mpg. At the Society of Automotive Engineers Hybrid Symposium in early February, Tarnowsky presented results from a G.M.-sponsored fuel economy showdown between five of the fuel-thrifty SUVs. G.M. had AMCI Marketing, which conducts vehicle testing for J.D. Power and others, simultaneously run the five vehicles over the same 500-mile route. The SUVs were rotated between six test drivers over two days. All vehicles were driven the same way: moderate acceleration; 5 mph over posted speed limits; AC in the first position; and complete stops at stop signs/signals.

Here are the mpg results and the approximate price tags for each vehicle:
Ford Escape Hybrid – 31.6 mpg / $30,000
Toyota Highlander Hybrid – 30.5 mpg / $35,000
Saturn VUE Greenline – 29.7 mpg / $23,000
Lexus RX 400h Hybrid – 28.9 mpg / $48,000
Saturn VUE, Standard 4-cylinder – 25.0 mpg / $21,000

All of the numbers look slightly exaggerated, but assuming they are equally inflated, the Saturn VUE Greenline—at nearly 30 mpg and $7k less than the Escape Hybrid—looks like a darn good value.

> Get more information about the Saturn VUE Greenline



GREENEST AND MEANEST VEHICLES OF 2006: INTERVIEW WITH JIM KLIESCH

The American Council for an Energy-Efficient Economy recently announced the year’s "greenest" and "meanest" vehicles, along with the environmental scorings of all model year 2006 cars and passenger trucks. They assigned an environmental score—based on fuel economy, tailpipe emissions and manufacturing impacts—for more than 1,100 configurations of 2006 vehicles. The vehicle scores are part of ACEEE’s Green Book® Online, available online at GreenerCars.com. I recently interviewed Jim Kliesch, the Green Book’s author and principal vehicle analyst.

BB: You just came out with the 2006 Greenest Car list. How did the hybrids fare?

JK: Hybrids fared quite well for their vehicle classes. While our list of the greenest vehicles of the year includes three hybrids—Honda Insight, Toyota Prius, and Honda Civic Hybrid—most of the other hybrids on the market scored well in their respective classes. For example, the Ford Escape Hybrid did quite well in the small SUV category.

BB: What about the toxicity of hybrid batteries and other components? Do they negate the environmental gains offered by hybrids?

JK: There is certainly going to be an environmental impact for any materials that are being used. However, there are many types of batteries, some far more toxic than others. While batteries like lead acid or nickel cadmium (NiCad) are incredibly bad for the environment, the toxicity levels and environmental impact of nickel metal hydride batteries—the type currently used in hybrids—is much lower. Furthermore, hybrid batteries are much smaller than (full) electric vehicle batteries. Lastly, many signs are indicating that today’s hybrid batteries will last the lifetime of the vehicle. That will help minimize resource use.

BB: You also created the meanest vehicles for the environment for 2006. Which vehicles should drivers with concern for the environment stay away from?

JK: If you look at our meanest vehicle list, while the models may have changed year to year, the general picture has not changed. The list is dominated by large pickups, large SUVs, and a few exotic sports cars. We’re not worried about the exotic sports cars because they sell at such low numbers. It is, however, an issue with large SUVs and pickup trucks: the GMC Yukon, the Hummer H2, the DodgeRam Pickup, the Dodge Durango SUV, and the Chevy Suburban SUV. These are all vehicles that have very high volumes and are incredibly inefficient.

The meanest vehicle of the year is the Dodge Ram SRT 10. It’s a version of the Dodge Ram pickup truck, in which Dodge placed a Viper engine. It’s an 8.3-liter, 500 horsepower 10-cylinder engine. The vehicle gets 9 mpg in the city and 12 in the city. You can’t expect to be environmentally friendly under those circumstances.

Read the entire interview



ABOUT THE OIL

Oil prices jumped back over $60 per barrel, based on news of a bombing in Pakistan, violence in Nigeria, resumption of Iran’s nuclear-research program and—most disturbing—an attack on a major oil facility in Saudi Arabia on Feb. 24. Two cars tried to drive through the gates of the outermost of three fences surrounding a major oil processing facility. Guards shot at the car and both vehicles exploded, causing a fire that was quickly controlled.

So, if the attack was unsuccessful, why is it disturbing? First of all, because the targeted facility at Alqaiq, in the east of Saudi Arabia, is huge. It processes five to seven million barrels of oil a day—up to 8 percent of the world’s consumption. More importantly, Al-Qaeda immediately claimed responsibility for the attack and pledged further strikes .

The Times of London reported that the bombing, named "Operation Bin Laden Conquest" by the perpetrators, was part of efforts to prevent the "theft" of Muslims’ wealth by "crusaders and Jews," according to a statement signed by Al-Qaeda’s Saudi affiliate. Their statement also said there are more attackers "who are racing toward martyrdom and eager to fight the enemies of God." The Alqaiq facility processes oil from its own wells, as well as handling 5 million barrels a day from the Ghawar well. More than 90 percent of Saudi crude exports pass through the plant.

That same morning, Ted Koppel, the retired host of Nightline, wrote an op-ed piece in the New York Times. The piece, Will Fight for Oil, took the Bush Administration to task for continuing to claim that the Iraq War has nothing to do with oil. Koppel wrote, "Now that’s curious. Keeping oil flowing out of the Persian Gulf and through the Strait of Hormuz has been bedrock American foreign policy for more than a half-century."

Read more about national security risks related to oil dependency (including a link to Koppel’s piece):

HYBRIDCARS.COM BLOG DIGEST
Here are some highlights from recent entries from our in-house Hybrid Cars think tank:

Felix Kramer: Did Toyota Blunder on NPR All Things Considered?
Recently, Toyota introduced the immense Tundra, challenging Detroit in its last stronghold–behemoth, hugely profitable trucks. (If you think I’m overstating things, Toyota’s spokesman called it "gargantuan.") Lots of stats about how much longer, wider, more powerful (and even low emissions) it is. But my search found no published info on its miles-per-gallon and greenhouse gas emissions. This same week, Toyota may have stumbled as it struggles to respond adequately to the growing number of journalists and car-owners pestering them about plug-in hybrids.

Walter McManus: We Need a 12-Step Program
The President’s recent commitment to put America "on the wagon" to break our oil addiction is missing what every recovering addict needs: a 12-step program. As Secretary of Transportation Norman Mineta and the President tour the heartland, they need to listen to their own economic advisors. And they need to listen to their constituents: The collapse of the American auto industry would have serious national, economic, and political ramifications.

Michael Millikin: Radical Change of Mindset
In a blunt speech at Europia—a conference of the European petroleum industry—Lewis Booth, executive vice president of Ford of Europe, stated that tackling the challenge of climate change requires a “complete and radical change of mindset.” Booth called climate change “one of the biggest global challenges facing society today. We [Ford] also believe it is the biggest challenge facing the auto industry.”

Maria McLean: Turning Gold into Lead
Is one barrel of oil worth two metric tons of open-pit mined tar sand? To extract bitumen from tar sands, Canada is subsidizing the scraping away of boreal forest and wetlands for open pit mines. This stuff is cooked into crude oil in a profligate process that requires a quarter barrel’s worth of energy for each barrel of oil produced.

David Miller: Green is the New Black, Unless You Are GM
At some point in 2005, hybrids began to represent more than just the environment. Those of us that care more about people than spotted owls and drive hybrids to lessen our dependence on tainted foreign oil are pleased by this turn of events. Perhaps Bushie’s State of the Union this year was the tipping point. So now that hybrids and other alternatively powered vehicles are hot, so is the color green. Of course, if you are one of the people trying to ruin GM, then you would come up with the idea of pushing yellow (for corn) instead of green.

Also, check out recent posts by Andrew Grant, Paul Burnett, and M.P. Jees.

SPEAKING TRUTH TO HORSEPOWER
In my most recent column on BusinessWeek Online, I compared a group of auto engineers to my 6-year-old son Isaac. "You are just like my son," I told the crowd. "You just want your cars to go vroom vroom. Don’t you read the papers? Don’t you know about climate change? Aren’t you aware of the fragility of oil supplies with tensions in Iran, and China’s demand growing at an alarming rate? Behave yourself."

The reader comments on BusinessWeek called the column "simplistic jibberish" and "sky-is-falling hype." You be the judge.

Read the entire column



WRAP-UP

That’s all for now. Until next time…

Happy Driving,
Bradley Berman
brad@hybridcars.com


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