Newsletter Archive Index

~~~ Hybrid Cars Newsletter: Issue No. 0027 ~~~
Moderator: Bradley Berman [[email protected]]

Greetings, Hybrid Car Enthusiasts,
Just when you thought it was safe to zip onto the hybrid highway, the newsletter is back. We took a summer sabbatical. We regrouped and rested, and are proud to serve up our 27th newsletter. This one is a real smorgasbord: info about alternative fuels, battery replacement costs, plug-in hybrids, transportation policy, and little toy Hummers. We’re back in the swing of things and ready to launch a lot of great new content and tools on Stay tuned.


Summer Hybrid Sales
With the May, June and July hybrid sales under our belt, a pattern of success and failure seems to be taking shape in the hybrid world. The Prius is unstoppable. The Camry hybrid is swimming ahead. The Highlander and Civic Hybrid are treading water. And Ford and Lexus hybrids, as well as the Honda Accord, are sinking. If a car company wants to sell hybrids, follow three rules: use a 4-cylinder engine, package it in a mid-size sedan, and stamp “Toyota” on its flank.

Bill Ford Fumbles the Hybrid Market
From David Miller, a blogger and one of the first owners of an Ford Escape Hybrid: "He had the name, the bloodline, and the position to change the world like his great grandfather had. Sadly, the ‘green Buddhist’ Bill Ford Jr. instead chose to whisper sweet nothings to investors and customers alike while his company rotted. Recently, Bill Ford Jr. renounced his promise (and previous ad campaign) to build 250,000 hybrids by the year 2010. What’s most striking is how blind Ford appears as he gives up his small success in the hybrid market as the world’s greatest auto firm, Toyota, is doing the exact opposite."

Automotive News Reports on Japanese Brands
In the Aug. 14 issue of Automotive News, the article "The Pipeline Runneth Over" identified these trends in future offerings from Japanese automakers: attractive small cars topping 40 mpg and an array of hybrid models. Quotable details:

Toyota: "The current Sienna minivan was not engineered for a hybrid powertrain. That has to wait until spring 2009, when the redesigned 2010 model debuts."

Honda: "Honda says it will introduce an entry-level, four-door hybrid positioned below the Civic for the 2009 model year. The company says it will wear a new nameplate, but it could be a sedan version of the Fit…Honda hopes to sell at least 100,000 of the small hybrids annually…A hybrid model [of the Ridgeline] may be offered for the 2009 model year."

Subaru: "Subaru has halted development of its own hybrid, which was expected in 2006 or 2007. Instead, it is partnering with Toyota. Development started in March, and a Subaru hybrid is several years away."

Tax and California Carpool Incentives Running Out
From "Toyota hybrid vehicle fans, circle Sept. 30 in red on your calendars. That’s the day you must drive one of these fuel-efficient autos off a Toyota lot or give up half of the new (federal) tax break created to reward energy-conscious motorists."

From the San Francisco Chronicle: "We don’t want panic in the streets," said Karen Caesar, spokeswoman for the state Air Resources Board, which oversees the hybrid carpool lane program. "But if you’re interested in a hybrid, now might be the time to go for it."

EPA Mileage Report: Flat
In July 17, the Environmental Protection Agency published their annual report on fuel economy trends. The fuel economy of 2006 vehicles is identical to 2005 vehicles: 21.0 mpg. The EPA has been running this report since 1975. It’s interesting to compare the stats on 2006 vehicles versus the 1987 model year. In the last 20 years, light-duty vehicles have picked up almost 1,000 pounds in weight and 100 horsepower. Their 0-to-60 mph performance has been sliced from 13.1 seconds to 9.7. And fuel economy has dropped from 22.1 mpg to 21.


You might be surprised to hear this from hybrid gas-electric cars are not a silver bullet for all our vehicle-related oil dependency and environmental problems. We’ll also need to consider hybridizing, if you will, our fuel sources. As part of our effort to broaden our strategies for sustainable transportation, and to broaden the definition of "hybrid," we recently launched a "Fuels" section on the site. Some of the alternatives we discuss require sacrificing money or convenience. Others really represent false hopes or the same problems disguised as solutions. Yet, the stakes are too high not to consider every possibility.

Biodiesel, an alternative fuel used in diesel engines, has three big advantages: it’s renewable, it can be produced domestically from crops such as soybeans, and it reduces the amount of pollution emitted from diesel engines. It also has two big disadvantages: biodiesel is expensive, and stations selling are scarcer than Bill Ford’s kept promises.

Compressed Natural Gas (CNG) Vehicles
Compared to gasoline, compressed natural gas (CNG) is cleaner, less expensive, and generally comes from domestic reserves. CNG vehicles also receive generous tax incentives. However, CNG vehicles also require some compromises, including the use of a special refueling infrastructure that is not widely developed in the United States. And your new vehicle choices are exactly one: The Honda Civic GX. At least you can have it in any color you want.

Ethanol is ethyl alcohol, also called grain alcohol. Chemically, fuel ethanol is identical—albeit in a purer form—to the alcohol we drink. To make sure fuel ethanol isn’t used for frat house punch, it’s denatured, which means it is mixed with another chemical (usually gasoline) that renders it undrinkable. Unfortunately, any fuel blend greater than 10 percent is undrinkable by 95 percent of cars on the road. Oh, and it packs less energy per gallon.

See our other sections about diesel, hydrogen, and petroleum from unconventional sources:

How do some hybrid drivers achieve fuel economy far greater than EPA estimates—while others stay within the fuel economy range of mere humans? In the search for answers, it’s easy to get lost in the hundreds and hundreds of posts on discussion forums. So we took the trouble of reading everything we could find, and to speak directly with the most accomplished of fuel-efficient drivers. (Special thanks to Dave Bassage, Gary Gattis, and Bob Barlow.) Based on the online posts and the interviews, we established categories such as break-in period and route selection to dashboard display and gear selection.

Get the details for these three vehicles:

Toyota Prius
Toyota’s sophisticated hybrid system allows nearly all drivers to achieve better than 40 mpg. Master the art of "gliding" and your mileage could far surpass the EPA’s combined estimate of 55 mpg.

Honda Civic Hy
The Honda Civic Hybrid—with its small engine and easy-to-view dashboard mileage gauges—gives the careful driver all the tools needed for extended coasting and super highway mileage. It lacks the ability to launch in all-electric mode—which helps to save gas in stop-and-go traffic—but makes up for it on the highway to produce overall mileage nearly equal to a Prius.

Ford Escape Hybrid
The Ford Escape Hybrid can reward the careful driver with mile-long stretches of all-electric driving, yielding fuel economy that surpasses most cars half its size. With a little practice, you can easily drop into all-electric mode (with a tap on the brake at the right time) or send a quick charge to the batteries (with the quick a release of the accelerator).

One journalist after the next purports the same point about hybrid gas-electric cars: they are not worth the extra cost. The writers’ lack of originality is only surpassed by their inability to get all the facts. When they proclaim that the extra cost of buying a hybrid will not be recouped in savings at the pump—as if they were the first person, rather than the thousandth, to "discover" a nefarious plot against American car buyers—the writer usually fails to consider tax credits, reduced maintenance, and historically excellent resale values. But nothing conjures up more fear and hysteria than these two words: hidden costs.

In June 2005, the Los Angeles Times reported that hybrid battery replacement costs dropped from $10,000 in 2001 to about $3,000 today. But three months later, Car and Driver columnist Brock Yates—no fan of hybrids—wrote, "battery replacement will cost $5,300 for the Toyota and Lexus hybrids, and the Ford Escape replacements run a whopping $7,200." Yates—now former Car and Driver columnist, by the way—compared a hybrid’s rechargeable batteries to the "dry cells in your flashlight…[which] have finite lives and store less power with age." He also insinuated some kind of cover-up, writing, "Industry types are not talking about total battery life."

They’re talking—but Brock’s not listening. Jim Francfort, principal investigator at the Idaho National Laboratory in Idaho Falls, which is operated for the U.S. Department of Energy, has been talking about it. His hybrid battery tests showed that 160,000 miles of use had no effect on fuel economy. Andrew Grant, the Vancouver, Canada, taxi driver who drove his Prius for more than 200,000 miles in 25 months, tells all about his Prius, which has taken a pummeling and kept on humming. At industry conferences, engineer after engineer will tell anybody who bothers to ask that hybrid batteries are, in fact, over-manufactured for their task.

The Plot Thickens
The one item that nobody has been talking about is the replacement costs for batteries—because nobody is replacing them. That’s what I thought until I received an email from Ray Molton, who works in the real estate industry in Houston, Texas. Ray wrote, "My 2001 Toyota Prius lasted five years and 113,000 miles. And then the batteries seemed to die. My dealer estimated the replacement cost at $7,000. They recommended scrapping the car for parts."

Read more about Ray’s experience:

CalCars founder Felix Kramer has been using his blog to chronicle the growing support for plug-optional hybrids. Can you say 100 mpg? At first, nearly all the carmakers were reluctant, dare we say antagonistic, to the idea of hybrids with more battery power and the capacity to charge overnight. Did something change in the summer of 2006? Maybe.

In the last couple of months, Bill Ford Jr. told his shareholders "we’re keenly looking" at Plug-in Hybrid Electric Vehicles (PHEVs), reports surfaced that General Motors will build a PHEV, and Toyota’s top US executive say, "We are pursuing a ‘plug-in’ hybrid vehicle…conserving more oil and slicing smog and greenhouse gases to nearly imperceptible levels."
Read more:

Perhaps the big carmakers can hear the angry approaching mob of plug-in entrepreneurs as they approach with their improved battery technology, investment dollars, and power cords knotted as hangmen’s nooses. Michael Millikin of Green Car Congress tells us about a few of these companies: AFS Trinity, AES Corporation, Hydrogenics, and Lithium Technology Corp. Mike also mentions a just-released study by global market research company Synovate. The company found that—once the concept of a plug-in hybrid was explained to survey respondents—49 percent of them said they would consider purchasing one. This is roughly the same level of consideration given to standard hybrid technology by these same consumers.
Read more:

There’s something about hybrids that instills a sense of enthusiasm—strike that, a sense of revolutionary zeal. To make sure that we’re not taking ourselves a wee bit too seriously, has enlisted the sober guidance of John DeCicco, senior fellow of Environmental Defense. John, a professor of mechanical engineering who specializes in automotive strategies, evaluates vehicle technologies and helps develop market-based policies for addressing the car-climate challenge. He’s been on the case of sustainable mobility for a couple of decades. We call this Q&A series, "Stopping for Directions," and—unlike some of you guys out there—we’re not afraid to do it. What have we learned so far?

On High Gas Prices: "The fact that high gas prices have motivated more people to pay attention to fuel economy is no more of a good thing than is, say, a fever after you’ve let yourself get run down, get sick, and don’t finally start taking care of yourself until you’re running the fever…There will only be a silver lining on the high gas price cloud if it serves as a wake-up call for new habits regarding fuel consumption.”
Read more:

On Practical Steps to Real Change: "The most immediate and practical step the president could take is to embrace a national policy to cut carbon (i.e., reduce global warming pollution). He should shift the Administration’s strategy from procrastination to passing a law to cut carbon on a clear timetable. A firm commitment to use less carbon-producing fuel, on the other hand, would mean that the country is serious about changing its energy system."
Read more:

On Billions of Research and Development Dollars: "The American public has not seen a return on the substantial investment of tax dollars into auto efficiency R&D, and so it’s difficult to say that the funds were well spent. Research should not be used as an excuse for inaction, but U.S. leaders seem to prefer throwing money at the automobile energy use problem rather than taking steps to solve it. In their perennial fascination with "supercar" research, politicians from both parties wait for breakthroughs while shirking a duty to pursue policies that would make better use of technologies already at hand."
Read more:

This month McDonald’s is giving away toy Hummers—42 million of them, in eight models and colors—with every Happy Meal or Mighty Kids Meal. When we learned about this at, we just couldn’t just sit as quietl
y as our cars at idle. It’s just too outrageous that the fast-food chain that helped make our kids the fattest on Earth is now selling future car buyers on the fun of driving a supersized, smog-spewing, gas-guzzling SUV originally built for the military. (I know, it’s just a toy. But c’mon.) In response, the Environmental Working Group and launched On the site, you can use the Ronald McHummer Sign-O-Matic™ to tell the world what you think of this misguided marriage of two icons of American excess. Then you can send a letter to Ralph Alvarez, president of McDonald’s.

The Ronald McHummer Sign-O-Matic™ is a hoot. Type a few words into a box on the site and watch your original slogan appear on a faux McDonald’s marquee. After you’re done creating your own sign, scroll through what others have to say about the Hummer giveaway and vote for your favorite. Here are a few of ours:

Fries, Lies, and Happy Meal Prize
Pollution, Corruption, Supersize

Big Burger
Big Butt
Small You-Know-What

Drive a McHummer
Run Over

You deserve a good chuckle today. Visit We did it all for you. And send your email to McDonald’s.

That’s our summer of bummer hummer August-September issue. We’ll be back in October with more hybrid cars news and info, and a close-up look at the Saturn VUE Greenline—we’ve been giving it a spin this week. Until next time…

Happy Driving,
Bradley Berman
[email protected]

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