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Car and Driver on Hybrids
Jamais Cascio, 23 Aug 04

Car and Driver's latest issue has two separate articles about hybrids, and anyone with an interest in the real world performance of efficient vehicle technologies should check them out.

The first is their preview of the long-awaited Ford Escape Hybrid SUV. When Bill Ford took over the company a few years back, he promised major changes to the vehicles Ford produced in order to improve greenhouse gas emissions. He has yet to really live up to his promises, but the Escape Hybrid appears to be a move in the right direction. With mileage in the 30-40 mpg range -- low for a hybrid, but outstanding for a sport-utility vehicle -- the Escape Hybrid looks to be a decent if unspectacular first American hybrid on the market (even if it does use Toyota's hybrid technology -- I am told that both Ford and Toyota have stated that this is not the case, and that Ford's hybrid tech is entirely its own creation -- thanks, Mike!).

For WorldChangers more interested in maximum efficiency than maximum space in their green vehicles, Car and Driver also has an article entitled "The Frugalympics," which compares real-world results of four high-efficiency automobiles: the current-model Toyota Prius, the current-model Honda Civic Hybrid, the VW Jetta GLS TDI (Diesel), and the Toyota Echo (which is gasoline powered but both high-mileage and low price). They took the four vehicles on trips in an urban setting, on the highway, and in "suburban" driving -- few stops, but much lower than highway speeds -- in order to see which car gave the best results.

The article is definitely worth reading, as it spells out some of the current concerns with hybrids, turbo diesels, and high-efficiency gasoline vehicles. The issue of hybrids (like all cars) not meeting EPA estimates is confronted directly and fairly; even while making note of actual mileage in cities and highways, C&D also reports on the much-better-than EPA results from "suburban" conditions (this matches my own experience with my Honda Civic Hybrid, btw). Check out the article for full details, but if you simply must know now how the four vehicles rated, read the extended entry for the results.

The results were pretty encouraging for hybrid cars.

The Echo was generally disappointing, despite turning in good mileage (for a conventional car): "This is Metamucil for the road—you'll go, and you'll be glad when it's over."

The VW got better mileage than the Echo, but suffered from the characteristic quirks of American-market diesels: "Diesels have character. A few of us really get off on them. It's not explainable."

The two hybrids got far and away better mileage overall, and were much more comfortable and enjoyable cars to drive. Honda Civic Hybrid owners will be pleased to see that the HCH just squeaks out a win over the Prius in their ratings, largely on Honda's combination of a somewhat more conventional driving experience (the Prius is described as "Microsoftian," which elicits shudders of dismay for many of us) with an easy and fun to use mileage interface.

Prius: "The Prius is as much a promise as it is a car."

HCH: "If you think frugality entails suffering, this Civic hybrid is proof to the contrary."

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Comments

I'm in a wheelchair and will hopefully be getting a car within a year. (I'd have to be able to drive with my legs -- strange but true.) I'd love to see a hybrid or biodiesel minivan with ramp!


Posted by: Jane Shevtsov on 23 Aug 04

I'd suspect at this point you're most likely to find a full-size diesel van able to run on biodiesel. Hybrid minivans don't seem to be on anyone's drawing board, and I don't think there are any diesel minivans available in the US. Unless, of course, you want to live in Europe -- you should have no problem finding a diesel minivan there.


Posted by: Jamais Cascio on 23 Aug 04

They should be hitting minivans fairly soon but prolly not soon enough for you.

The main problem with many hybrids and especialy full hybrids is replacment of the battery pack. Its SPENDY. Thats why all these american companies are going slowly into it they are realy waiting on a better longer lasting battery and only realy doing work on the control and mechanics of hybrids while they work on getting that better battery.


Posted by: wintermane on 24 Aug 04

I'm not sure where you get the idea that replacement of the battery pack is "spendy," or that the cost is even an issue. Batteries are covered under the extended warranty (for the HCH, at least, and I presume for the Prius and Escape, as well), and the estimated lifespan of the batteries is much longer than the length of time any of the hybrids have been on the road. By the time the batteries need replacing, I would expect to see the costs be fairly reasonable, given the advances in battery tech we've seen recently.

The reason that American car companies haven't moved aggressively into the hybrid space (or, for most US automakers, even cautiously into it) is that they've been fixated on the high demand and amazingly high profits for sport utility vehicles. Low gas prices in the US (and, even now, American gas is still cheap in historical and global-comparison terms) meant not a lot of mainstream demand for high mileage vehicles in the US, and the American car companies often decided to spend money on fighting government attempts to require higher mileage than on investigating how it could be done.


Posted by: Jamais Cascio on 24 Aug 04

JC's comments above dead-on target. For those who remember the original wave of high efficiency Asian cars following the last oil/gas crisis, this pattern of US makers holding back has been a constant for decades. Innovation around long range, high impact issues like gas pricing and climate change is dominated by the creeping incrementalism of MBA's, "marketing" experts, and attorneys, all feeding the Wall Street beast. How Honda and Toyota manage to overcome the Street is a question that deserves rigorous comparative study.


Posted by: John Laumer on 24 Aug 04

The thing people forget about suvs is they replaced full sized vans and get far better gas milage then what they replaced. It wasnt uncommon for full sized vans of the 70s and 80s to get 5-6 mpg.

As for the battery they still have to make sure the battery actauly DOES get cheaper before too many of them need replacement.

And on the milage front the main trouble was and still is that the very people who like small cars and high milage cars are also the very ones who prefer imports. The very blunt fact is amoung shoppers who look for a 50 mpg car most wont look at a ford EVEN if a ford had 60 mpg. And it didnt take much market testing to discover that blazingly obvious fact.

You cant make high milage cars no one will buy from you. Now you CAN make high milage cars someone ELSE can sell to someone who wont buy from you... but that takes trickery and obfustication of just who made what vs who is selling what. And in the end it doesnt help your average fuel milage numbers anyway.


Posted by: wintermane on 24 Aug 04

Oh to give you an idea what the suv replaced we had a full sized van of the early late 70s model and it got at MOST 8 miles per gallon and at worst 4.. it had 2 huge 42 gallon gas tanks... Do you know of any suvs with 2 gas tanks now adays?


Posted by: wintermane on 24 Aug 04

The thing people forget about suvs is they replaced full sized vans

They also replaced station wagons.


Posted by: Mars Saxman on 25 Aug 04

Very good point, Mars.

Actually, wintermane, I'm pretty sure that the Hummer has two gas tanks, and it's probably not the only one. And, for whatever it's worth, the full size vans of the present day get better mileage than the old Econolines (etc.) of the 1970s (we had one when I was a kid).

As for the assertion that young buyers will only buy imports, that's simply not true. The Chevy Cavalier, the Geo/Chevy Metro, Saturns, etc., all sold very well in the 1990s and early 2000s, in large part because they were inexpensive (especially compared to the Japanese imports, which were hammered by exchange rates). The problem is, Ford, Chevy, and GM seemed to get stuck in the notion that a high-mileage, smaller vehicle was inherently a *cheap* vehicle. The reason why Hondas and Toyotas continue to sell so well is that they've figured out that just because a person wants a high mileage car doesn't mean that the person wants a plastic piece of crap.

And this cuts across generations -- my father-in-law, a retired schoolteacher, set aside his once adamant American Car-Only policy when he couldn't find an American vehicle that had the combination of high mileage and comfort that he could get with a Honda.


Posted by: Jamais Cascio on 25 Aug 04

Actauly the suv came after the wagon had died down. The minivan replaced small wagons and the suv replaced the huge battlewagon style station wagons. And ya I did know the hummer had 2 tanks but then it is a hummer after all. Those arnt exactly SPORT utility vehicles realy they are uvs. The hummer 2 tho is a suv.

And ya fuel econ on large trucks has improved alot in 30 years much more so then the mid and small car fuel econ... odd that.

As for the small car thing they tested the water by selling the exact same car as an import made same place same parts... it went BADLY. So they retreated and waited. It takes a long time to change peoples minds and I dont know if even now they are ready to try again. They realy had to just wait a generation er a human generation not car generation ands wait for new buyers who might go for it. Tho frankly when I think small car I think toyota or mitsubawhatever NOT ford.


Posted by: wintermane on 25 Aug 04



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