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12 March 2006 16:00

globeandmail.com : Watt hype! Dubious claims driving hybrid frenzy

by multilinko (via)
Detroit is making better cars. But Motown just can't win. Look at the April issue of Consumer Reports magazine, the bible of product testing. For the first time, each of the top 10 picks is Japanese. Two of them are hybrids -- the chic and green-tinged Toyota Prius and the Toyota Highlander Hybrid luxury SUV. Hybrids are hot. There are long waiting lists for the Prius -- its sales rose 100 per cent in 2005 -- and they command premium price tags. Toyota and Honda are going big on hybrids, which combine a conventional gasoline engine with an electric motor. Wary of missing out on yet another showroom hit, Detroit is going even bigger, it appears. The Ford Escape hybrid is for sale. Ford and GM will roll out a dozen others in the next few years, including hybrid versions of the Malibu, Silverado, Fusion and Vue (called the Vue Green Line). Is Detroit about to blow it again? Hybrids might be the most overhyped consumer product since New Coke or the five-blade razor and it's just a matter of time before the innocent wise up. The wheeled gadgets are expensive and represent dubious value. Their fuel economy stats are exaggerated and the auto makers, no slouches when it comes to cynical marketing, have figured out that hybrid technology can appeal to lube heads who adore power and cherish the ability to accelerate to the stop sign in 2.4 seconds flat. So much for green effect. While Consumer Reports gives high ratings to the Highlander and Prius (for things like comfort, performance and fuel efficiency) it also notes that hybrids make about as much financial sense as dry cleaning your underwear. Take the regular Honda Accord versus the hybrid Accord. The hybrid version costs $5,700 (U.S.) more. Therefore the sales tax and financing charges are higher. The higher sticker price translates into extra depreciation costs. But don't the fuel savings still make it a bargain? Forget it. The Accord hybrid gets only two miles per gallon (mpg) more than the non-hybrid. Add it all up and the extra cost over five years for the hybrid is $10,250, according to Consumer Reports. The extra five-year cost of a Prius over a Toyota Corolla is $5,250 even though the Prius does better than the Corolla by 15 mpg. Fine, you say; what's a few thousand bucks if it means saving the planet? Wrong, tree hugger. Hybrids aren't saving the planet. They still burn fossil fuels. Combustion of any type adds to smog and produces carbon dioxide, the gas that's turning the Arctic into a gigantic toaster oven. Yes, hybrids get better fuel economy than non-hybrids of similar size, but the difference isn't as big as you might think. You wouldn't know that from official government figures, though. The U.S. Environmental Protection Agency measures the mileage of every car on the road, and the law states that only EPA figures can be used in advertising. The problem is that EPA tests pretty much ignore real-world driving. They do not take into account speeds greater than 100 km an hour or the extra burden put on an engine when the air conditioning is on. Take the Prius again. The EPA says the little sweetie gets 55 mpg. Consumer Reports puts the figure at 44. The lead-foots at Car & Driver magazine put it at 42, or about one-quarter less than the posted figure. Still, 42 is better than a Corolla's 29. Differences elsewhere can be minimal. The New York Times last year tested the Lexus SUV in regular and hybrid versions. The hybrid got 23 mpg, only 1.4 mpg more than the non-hybrid. So why buy a hybrid Lexus? In a word, power. The extra torque provided by combing a V6 gasoline engine with two electric motors boosts torque (or turning force), allowing it to accelerate faster than the non-hybrid in spite of the extra 150 kilos of weight. You can see what's starting to happen here. More and more cars and SUVs will get the hybrid treatment to improve acceleration first, fuel economy second. The auto makers hope this translates into marketing nirvana. Hybrids might allow them to attract the type of buyer who wants wheel-smoking performance without the environmental guilt that goes with it. Never mind that the SUV's green envelope is gossamer thin; the neighbours won't know. Consumers are enamoured. In February, sales of the Lexus SUV hybrid were 22 per cent of the total sales of that model family. Eventually, consumers will figure out the fuel savings of the vehicles are not worth the price premium, and that the green image is just that -- an image. Nonetheless, Detroit, coming late to the hybrid game, considers the hybrid the path to salvation. The sensible way to improve fuel economy is to build smaller, lighter cars. It takes great amounts of energy to propel greater amounts of mass, end of story. If the smaller cars are also safe, reliable and fun to drive -- a formula the Europeans and the Japanese figured out -- they will attract buyers. So instead of sticking an electric motor in the mediocre Chevy Malibu, why not make the Malibu better than the Honda Accord, its direct competitor, in every sense? The answer is that the hybrid propaganda is working. For now, that is.

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last mark : 12/03/2006 16:11