Where Are the High-MPG Small Hybrids?

It was once thought that the great promise of gas-electric hybrids was to offer new levels of fuel efficiency. In other words, adding even a modest battery pack and motor to a compact or subcompact car could boost the fuel efficiency of a small car from the mid-30-mpg range into the 40- or 50-mpg range. The original two-seater Honda Insight delivered 70-mpg in real world mileage for many of its drivers. Where is the next generation of small high-mpg hybrids?

Automakers are now searching for the best technical and economic approach to small hybrids. Honda is the single carmaker that has shown an interest in smaller more affordable hybrids—yet the Civic Hybrid and 2010 Honda Insight have had trouble finding customers. In fact, Honda Executive Vice President Koichi Kondo recently told Bloomberg that the 2010 Honda Insight might have compromised too much size in the name of efficiency. The company will soon introduce another small hybrid, the two-seat Honda CR-Z, followed by a gas-electric version of the Honda Fit.

“There are plenty of people who think that the current Fit meets their needs already” with its fuel efficiency, Kondo said. “A hybrid version might seem expensive. Our engineers are really struggling.”

Toyota Tries to Get Small with Hybrids

Toyota is showing off its Toyota FT-CH—the CH stands for compact hybrid—on this year’s auto show circuit. The company has also hinted at a smaller version of the Prius, and plans to unveil the Lexus CT 200h, a premium compact hybrid, at the upcoming Geneva auto show. If Toyota delivers on its promise of more hybrids throughout its entire lineup, at some point it will need to get small.

Hybrids haven’t been big sellers in Europe, but perhaps the small hybrid format is better suited to European drivers. The CT 200h apparently will only be available in Europe, to take on the Audi A1.

Lexus CT-200h

For now, we only have a teaser photo of the Lexus CT-200h, a compact luxury concept hybrid.

In a recent interview with Ward’s Auto, Jack Hollis, vice president-Scion, Toyota Motor Sales U.S.A., pretty much ruled out using the Scion brand for small youth-oriented hybrid. Cost is the issue. “We really still feel (hybrids) fit into the Toyota lineup better than the Scion lineup, from a pricing structure,” Hollis said.

Other automakers have been thinking about future small hybrids, including Volkswagen, which showed it New Compact Coupe (NCC) concept at last month’s Detroit auto show. The NCC mates a hybrid powertrain to its direct-injection gasoline engine to yield around 45 mpg. Upcoming electric cars, including the Nissan Leaf and Ford Focus Electric, are also compact.

Volkswagen's New Compact Coupe (NCC) concept

Volkswagen New Compact Coupe

Global automakers are wrestling with finding the right economics for placing a relatively costly hybrid or electric-drive system into cars that are smaller and more affordable. As long as gas prices are low, the numbers are tricky and the concepts are remaining in research and development labs. Yet, if and when gas prices take a jump, the move to small hybrids that can get 50 or 60 mpg could get big fast.

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  • shopa

    Government mpg requirements (CAFE) will force cars to become lighter. Weight is a big factor in mpg.
    Lighter cars are guaranteed to be smaller cars because there is no cost effective alternative to steel.
    The only way to get weight down is to remove steel.
    Removing steel to lighten cars is a bad idea. Steel absorbs collision energy. The collision death rate of micro vehicles is double that of mid size vehicles.
    The American public is going to be very angry in a few years when they learn that very few large cars will be available for purchase.
    They will probably be auctioned at high prices.

  • Capt Wendell Brunk

    It seems we are going backward. The first generation Hybrid, the old Honda CRV got 70 MPG… AVERAGE!! some even better, so why with 10 more years of research and development have we gone BACKWARD to less than 50 MPG. It seems no one is really serious about fuel economy. We should have cars getting 100 MPG, no doubt in my mind, if 10 years ago we were getting 70…

    Seems to me the oil companies are STILL in control of the auto manufacturers… why else??


  • insightman

    The American public spoke loudly by spending their dollars on SUVs instead of fighting for the few Insight Classics that Honda sent to this country. The stunted spine growth of our legislators has prevented gas taxes from rising to the levels that would actually reduce our dependence on foreign oil and make fuel-efficient smalll hybrids popular. I love my 2006 Insight as much as I loved my 2000 Insight. I’m surprised that the fuel efficiency of its 1998 design has yet to be surpassed despite a dozen years of intense hybrid research by much larger companies.

  • DownUnder

    The 1998 Honda Insight was a tiny 2 seater. It’s not hard to obtain 70 MPG w/ such a car. Impractical anyway, that’s why it was killed off.

  • Slave to The Grind

    Remember the Honda civic in the 70s getting over 50mpg.Or the diesal VW Rabbit getting over 60mpg,kinda makes ya go hmmmmmoney!!!

  • Pickey McPickey

    Does anyone ever get the idea that the whole world is corrupt and we are all victims of scam artists? Banks, Oil Companies, Health Insurance Companies, Car Manufacturers, Wall Street…the list continues to grow.

    Now we are hearing that global warming is a hoax..I don’t know if it is or not..there are so many puppet handlers (Big Business) that manipulate the facts and control the political process, I just don’t know who or what to believe anymore.

    Can the car manufacturers make a car that gets 100mpg? Probably…Will we ever know the truth? Probably not, if it has a negative impact on someones bottom line in the supply chain.

  • ex-EV1 driver

    Personally, I’m into alternative energy vehicles because I don’t want to be stuck in miniature crackerboxes. I”m 6’4″, 220 lbs and want by back to last for a long time. I need full-sized cars so my preference is to replace oil with an alternative, not just dumb my life down to not need as much oil. Its going to run out eventually so why not just admit it and get past it now.
    As far as 100 mpg cars, I drive a car every day that uses no oil at all. I won’t let anyone near my car with that smelly, explosive, staining junk. It gets infinite mpg. I drive about 20,000 miles per year with it. There’s no reason that most cars, big and small can’t be the same.
    All major car manufacturers (Ford, GM, Chrysler, Nissan, Honda, Toyota) did make similar cars that got infinite mpg in the 1990s. They just chose to crush them all instead of continuing production.

  • simon@syd

    I think there are 2 possibilities:

    1) batteries, adding weight, aren’t ideal to be adding to very small cars – thus hybrid doesnt suit small cars

    2) Manufacturer’s dont want to canibalise their own hybrid sales. Prius sales would surely be crippled by a (cheaper) corolla hybrid. in australia they’ve just launched the camry hybrid – it had to be managed carefully in terms of its features, so that the price was bought up to nearly the same as that of the Prius.

    And petrol is so cheap now, anyhow.

  • Ole

    Small cars are less profitable than larger cars and trucks. Even efficient producers such as Toyota earn far more on selling a Lexus than a Corolla, while less efficient producers such as GM generally lose money on each small car they sell. The only hybrid producer that claims to make a profit on hybrids is Toyota, and many analysts suggest that this is only because of some creative accounting. With this possible exception of Toyota, every other hybrid producer in the world is making hybrids for public relations purposes, because they lose money on each one they sell. So combine unprofitable small cars with unprofitable hybrid technology and you get big losses, which is something all the world’s automakers are currently trying to avoid due to the financial crisis.

  • Phillip U.

    Let’s not forget that at least here in the U.S. small cars aren’t as popular as they are globally. So combine the fact that they’re low to no margin with low marketability and you’ve got a non-starter.

  • Samie

    Does any of this matter? If we progress towards electric vehicles it does not matter.

    Clearly profit margins come from trucks (quad-cabs) w/ diesel engines, SUV’s with huge V8’s, and luxury sedans. Yes it is possible for small sedans to get 75-100 mpgs w/hybrid tec. and standard size trucks to have small block diesel engines but that goes against the conventional business as usually concept. As long as we think in terms of petroleum or any other liquid fuel this problem arises.

    Also an interesting question, if you can have a niche market for a crappy Scion why not a 2- door or 4-door hybrid at 15-17k that gets 80mpgs???

    Gasoline tax is political suicide and lobbying to punch new holes in CAFE standards as is being done now only worsens the problem…. At some point consumers will be forced to pay $5.00 a gallon again or future generations will have to pay up for subsidizing oil along with military protect, & problems with propping up aristocrats, dictators and people who use hate and fear to their advantage.

  • Mr.Bear

    I don’t buy Jack Hollis’s line, “We really still feel (hybrids) fit into the Toyota lineup better than the Scion lineup, from a pricing structure”.

    The Toyota Yaris appears to be the base the FT-CH is built upon.

    The Toyota Yaris starts at $14.3k.
    The Scion xD starts at $15.5k.
    The Scion xB starts at $16.5k.
    The Scion tC starts at $17.5k.

    Who’s pricing structure are we talking about: the consumer’s or Toyota’s?

    And while I’m at it. The FT-CH either needs a new name or a pronounceable acronym. FT-CH is too hard to remember and too many letters to say individually. Maybe we should start calling it the “Fat-Itch” until they change it.

  • Shines

    A few thoughts:
    Ford, Toyota and Honda make full hybrids that average over 30 mpg and are still safe and comfortable.
    The oil companies just sell oil cheaply – as long as they do most folks are going to buy conventional vehicles.
    It is hard to make a small light vehicle for the US market with all the safety and anti-polution requirements.
    Hybridization is expensive; that and the relatively low cost of fuel will keep hybrids from dominating in the near term.
    Better battery technology, Plug in hybrids and EVs will accelerate the shift away from conventional engines and foreign oil.

  • sean t

    100 MPG? I heard the VW Up Lite achieved 2.44 l/100km, which is pretty close to 100MPG, and it’s a 4 seater. It’s a hybrid car w/ turbo charged diesel and electric motors.

    Toyota plans to have hybrids for EVERY model by 2020. Not sure if they can deliver . . .

  • Aardvark

    I still have my 2000 Honda Insight and there is no vehicle now being sold that can compare in mileage. This seems to always been the trend. I had a 1988 Honda CRX HF that could easily get 48MPG. Until the Insight came along, there were no cars on the market that could beat it. So I am not surprised that the 2000 Insight is the benchmark at this point. It will probably be another few years before another “breakthrough” occurs such that an affordable car comes out that can beat my Insight’s MPG rating.

  • Anonymous

    “Seems to me the oil companies are STILL in control of the auto manufacturers…” – Capt Wendell Brunk

    You got that right! I heard of a man who invented a car that ran on water… yes water. Not long after he was dead… coincidence? I think not.

    Check out this link:
    It is about a contest the Shell oil company put on in 1973. The winner made a 1959 Opel T-1 get 376.59 mpg. This is in the 70’s. Who do you think would loose out on this? Nearly 40 years later, and the best mpg you can get with new hybrids is in 50’s… something seems wrong here!?

    About 6 months ago, I read about a new car that was coming out that got over 300 mpg. I have not heard a word about it since. I forgot what company that came up with it. Doing some google search’s brought up no results about it (only a weird/futuristic looking car that may be coming out soon.. I doubt that will ever come out either). It was a normal looking car, that was going to cost around 20k.

    What a sad corrupt, greedy world we live in!