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What Do Upscale Hybrids Portend?
Jamais Cascio, 17 Sep 04

In coming weeks, Insights, Civic Hybrids, and Priuses (Prii?) won't be the only hybrid-electric vehicles on the road. The Ford Escape hybrid SUV -- which we talked about in August -- should be hitting the streets soon, and both Honda and Toyota (as Lexus) have new hybrid models coming out (while still "vaporwheels," Honda and Lexus are supposedly taking pre-orders). But what do they tell us about the direction carmakers are taking hybrid technology?

The Lexus RX 400h -- that's the vehicle shown to the right -- is billed as the first "luxury hybrid." Unsurprisingly, while it's a hybrid, it's not exactly a screamingly green vehicle. It's a version of Lexus' SUV, and is aimed at people who (in the words of Lexus general manager Denny Clements "want to do the right thing for the ecology, but [...] don't want to make the sacrifice."

The Lexus site is heavy on the Flash animated text and sales pitch, but very light on actual information. or even images. According to Canadian car site Auto123, where the picture came from, the RX 400h will put out 270 horsepower, and should get upwards of 27mpg "combined" mileage -- better than the 20 city/26 hwy/22 combined of the standard RX, but not by much.

There's a similar story with the Honda Accord Hybrid, due out at any moment. While not a "luxury" model, the Accord is the bigger, better-appointed cousin to the Civic sedan. Green Car Congress has a detailed post about the workings of the Accord Hybrid, including comparisons between the Accord, the Civic Hybrid, and the 2004 Prius. Like the Honda Civic Hybrid, the Accord Hybrid will use "engine assist" hybrid technology, so it never runs just on electricity. (This has become known as "mild hybrid," which -- given that the "engine assist" Insight remains the most fuel-efficient vehicle around -- doesn't really work for me. But I digress.) GCC notes that the hybrid technology and some advanced engine design allow the Accord Hybrid to achieve a combined 255 horsepower and vehicle mileage rated at 30 city/37 hwy/33 combined, comparable to the Ford Escape Hybrid.

While also better than the non-hybrid version, which gets (depending on version) anywhere between 20-26 city and 30-34 hwy (24-29 combined), the Accord Hybrid -- like the Lexus RX 400h and the Ford Escape Hybrid -- seems to trade on the marketing value of the term "hybrid" without actually having breakthrough performance. The problem comes, in part, from the more powerful engines. As GCC puts it:

There is no magic technology right now that will let drivers roar around in big, powerful cars and trucks while only sipping fuel. At this point, radical adjustment in consumption has to come from consumer behavior and buying patterns. The incremental benefits of hybrid technologies are important, and should be implemented. ItÂ’s just not enough on its own.

We can approach this situation in one of two ways: we can complain (quite legitimately) that manufacturers are trying to cater to consumer demand for green design and technologies with not-really-green products; or we can see this as a sign of the mainstreaming of green -- that rather than ignore green consumers, or offering them a choice between cars that look like they just drove off a college parking lot or cars that look like they just drove off the set of a scifi movie, producers are trying to integrate green technology into the vehicles more popular with "regular" consumers. Green can't win if it's niche.

This next year's crop of new model hybrids may not be up to the efficiency standards set by the first wave, but they may well be the beginning of a very welcome trend.

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Comments

This reminds me of the argument about the commodification of organic groceries at Whole Foods and Wild Oats.

I'd go to my little freaky quirk-o organic grocery (Rainbow, up on 15th) and hear people complaining about how mainstream places like Whole Foods had turned their movement into a yuppie commodity. Well, isn't that GOOD?

I can go into a Safeway and buy shade-grown organic fair-trade coffee. Yay for our side!

The real issue is ubiquity. Soon, all cars will have dual power sources, and no one will think twice about it. The danger is that someone's going to start saying that the hybrid tech isn't worth it because it doesn't really improve mileage that much, blaming the technology for the design decisions that hold it back.


Posted by: Paul on 17 Sep 04

It's too early to pass judgement.

Having owned a 2004 Prius for 18,000 km my average fuel consumption at 4.0 l/100 km is better than EPA because the vehicle allows me to do it (unlike a conventional vehicle). Most owners aren't willing to be fuel efficient or change their driving habits.

Wait and hear from future full hybrid owners of 400h, Highlander, Escape and learn what is achievable.

The technology, manufacturers and vehicle owners are relatively green (rookies).

It's interesting times ahead.


Posted by: Jack on 17 Sep 04

Nice title, Jamais!


Posted by: Emily Gertz on 18 Sep 04

I think another important factor is speeding up other manufacturer's need to produce hybrids. For example: I doubt that the Lexus Hyrid will take many sales away from the Prius. If a consumer's priority is environmental impact, they will chose the Prius. But, the Lexus Hybrid will take away sales from other small non-hybrid SUV's just like the Accord hybrid will take away sales from the Chevy Malibu, Ford Taurus, etc. Now these other manufacturers are forced to speed up their delivery of their hybrids. It's a huge product differentiation, and it will cause other manufacturers to wake up.


Posted by: Brian on 20 Sep 04

Just a couple of comments on this one:

'given that the "engine assist" Insight remains the most fuel-efficient vehicle around'

That more than likely has a lot more to do with the Insight being built out of aluminum with one of the lowest prodduction drag coefficients on the market.

And this relates to the below quote:

"There is no magic technology right now that will let drivers roar around in big, powerful cars and trucks while only sipping fuel."

And there never will be unless you consider a very dense energy source "magic". It isn't, or rather, won't be. It may be "sipping" some superdense fuel, but it is still sucking down about the same amount of absolute energy as a gas or diesel version.

Energy is energy is energy. It takes the same amount of energy to power a diesel, or gas, or electric, or hydrogen vehicle. All that matters is the density of the fuel, how much energy it takes to create that fuel, the relative efficiency of the engines in question, how big and aerodynamic of a vehicle you are driving around, and your desired tradeoff between performance and efficiency.

A small superlight highly aerodynamic 2 seater is always going to perform better than a 4 person sedan, or an 8 person SUV, largely regardless of the power source since all of them are roughly in the same range.

That's why the Insight gets around 70mpg, about the same as a lot of motorcycles, a Honda CRX HF gets around 50mpg, and the VW Lupo gets 120 something mpg. It's just physics folks. Enjoy!


Posted by: Jason Michael Smithson on 20 Sep 04

Oh, I know. You're absolutely right, Jason: the Insight gets such kickass mileage because it's designed to be as efficient as possible -- skinny tires and all. I was reacting more to the increasingly common assertion that the IMA system in the Honda hybrids is somehow not a "real" hybrid. I'm still waiting to see a "real" hybrid do significantly better than the "mild" hybrid design. It will happen eventually, but so far, for non-super-aerodynamic cars, the Honda (mild hybrid) mileage and the Toyota (full hybrid) mileage seem to be more or less equivalent.


Posted by: Jamais Cascio on 20 Sep 04

The problem with really small cars is they have to fit me my stuff and an ultra mega big gulp supreme jumbo turbo extreme.


Posted by: wintermane on 20 Sep 04



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