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.
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.
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.