MPG vs. Speed

Recent hybrid market studies from R.L. Polk and Kelley Blue Book indicate that mileage is not always the main issue for hybrid owners. But stories from the New York Times in July, 2005 —such as “The Hybrid Emperor’s New Clothes”—put mileage issues front and center, and bring into question the use of hybrid technology for speed at the expense of fuel efficiency.

Is the incarnation of hybrids as “muscle” vehicles the key to breaking into the mainstream, or a misstep by Toyota and Honda that will alienate the core hybrid fans?

Shifting Strategies

The first set of hybrids—the Prius, Insight, and Civic—used a core strategy of reducing the size of the gas engine and providing “on demand” power from the electric motor and batteries. Reducing the size of the gas engine, which can stand to be smaller based on 90 percent of common driving—is one of keys to gaining better fuel economy. The newer hybrids—the Accord, Lexus SUV, and Highlander—maintain the size of the gas engine, and add power by way of the electric components. This approach does little or nothing to boost fuel efficiency.

James Cobb, editor of the Auto section for the New York Times, in his analysis of the Highlander Hybrid, made reference to comments by Gabriel Shenhar, senior auto test engineer for Consumer Reports. Shenhar suggested that “if Toyota had truly wanted to make a fuel-efficient seven-passenger wagon, it could have developed a hybrid from the four-cylinder Highlander with real-world mileage of 30 mpg.”

The N.Y. Times articles offended some of the "hybrids and only hybrids" fans but made a valuable point: Just because a vehicle is a hybrid doesn’t mean that it maximizes fuel efficiency.

The articles certainly succeeded in getting people to talk about hybrids and mpg. A virtual firestorm erupted on hybrid discussion forums and blogs. All the roles got reversed among bloggers. Walter McManus, who usually refers to the New York Times in pejorative terms, pats the paper on the back, declaring, “Once and for all discrediting the theory that hybrids have any potential to reduce our consumption of oil comes the New York Times story about hybridizing for performance.” (A few months later, he ended up buying an Accord Hybrid.) David J. Miller, who is on a pop culture-mainstream media I.V., called the paper’s motives into question, asking, “Is it possible that just maybe the NY Times editorial board now hates hybrids because they are going mainstream and upscale and are no longer the exclusive province of Uber-Greenies and Hollywood morons?”

The articles upset Pam Wong, a Lexus RX400h driver. Pam wrote:

People who own the car really enjoy the extra power and while they may not get the ‘published’ mileage, they do get about a third more than the conventional RX while getting substantially better acceleration and amenities. The articles just weren’t true. It was as if they didn’t want to hear what owners had to say, and we as owners can’t really figure how they reached those mileages. Under the worst conditions they were impossible. To compare the driving of a 400h to a Subaru Outback is the ultimate insult and I’ve driven both.

A site visitor named Bill expressed similar sentiments in one of the many responses to Walter’s blog:

You cannot be serious. A performance Hybrid is exactly what is needed to make the Hybrid technology viable. Who in their right mind would want to consider a wimpy hybrid like the Insight or the Prius? As for me, I purchased an Accord Hybrid. It is a great vehicle that does not sacrifice anything. It has great performance in a luxury package that additionally offers me 21 percent improved fuel economy.

What Does It All Mean?

The media has shown that some hybrids aren’t delivering on their potential to save gas, but owners of those vehicles are more devoted than ever. What’s a hybrid shopper to do? John DeCicco of Environmental Defense, says, "The only truly sound advice is really quite straightforward: consumers should be mindful of the fuel consumption impacts of their transportation choices and, when it comes to selecting a vehicle, simply choose the most fuel-efficient model that meets their needs and fits their budget.”