It used to be so easy. If you wanted a hybrid, you had a simple choice: the Honda Insight, the Honda Civic and the Toyota Prius. All shared the same benefits: low emissions, high fuel economy, and a somewhat compromised performance character. Still, if you wanted to make a statement, save some gas and do your part for the environment, it was really a matter of choosing one of three.
My, how things have changed. Hybrids have become the darlings of the industry, thanks to rising fuel prices and our awakening realization that we’re running out of oil. As the prez says, we’ve got ourselves an oil addiction, and hybrids are the trendy way to detox. Compared to last year, hybrid sales are up 44 percent, with the Prius taking an astonishing 50 percent of the US hybrid market. All in all, hybrids account for 1.26 percent of the US light-duty vehicle market. As a result, there are plenty more hybrids from which to choose, and more to come, such as the Toyota Camry Hybrid and a slew of semi-serious 'brids from GM. Not all are built the same as the Insight, Civic or Prius, however. You can now buy a Highlander Hybrid, for example, get around 28 miles per gallon – and suffer in traffic, because the Highlander doesn’t reach the mpg rating required for access into car pool lanes. Same goes for the Honda Accord Hybrid, the recent batch of Lexus hybrids, and even the Ford Escape Hybrid – which is a full hybrid, but nonetheless doesn’t rate a car pool sticker. The difference between full and partial is critical to your fuel and emissions-saving agenda: A full hybrid powertrain is one that can operate on electric-only power, meaning the vehicle is propelled forward by the strength of its electric motors before the gas engine starts. The Toyota Prius and the Ford Escape Hybrid are two excellent examples of this technology, as both can go up to approximately 15 mph on the electric power. Because full hybrid powertrains actually cut the engine at stoplights and in traffic, fuel savings and pollution are significantly better than that offered by partial systems. The benefit to a partial system is better performance (electric motors can provide greater boost off the line) with improved fuel economy. The Honda Accord Hybrid is a partial hybrid and is the fastest Accord in the lineup, though doesn’t really benefit the environment: the Accord Hybrid is rated ULEV, whereas most full hybrids are rated as PZEV.
Judging from the fact that the Prius – one of the most fuel efficient, low polluting cars available – currently accounts for about 50 percent of hybrid new vehicle sales, most people aren’t too interested in hybrid 0-60 times. If that’s you, be sure to check the miles per gallon rating and the emissions rating on the hybrid you choose, as benefits such as HOV lane access and tax credits are based on efficiency. In the end, even with all the available hybrids, the choice comes down to pretty much the same cars – with the Ford Escape Hybrid added to the mix.
Real MPG ratings
Power vs. Economy
Other power hybrids include the recent batch of vehicles from Lexus, such as the 2006 Lexus RX 400h – a luxury suv that gets about 26 miles to the gallon, and actually offers a more spirited drive than the more traditional RX. Also coming soon from Lexus is the world’s first rear-drive hybrid, the 2007 GS 450h – a powerful performance machine, not to be confused with, say, a Honda Insight.
The result of these power hybrids is great fun and improved efficiency, when compared to vehicles of similar performance character, but not when compared to hybrids that usually feature four-cylinder engines and continuously variable transmissions, such as the Toyota Prius, Ford Escape Hybrid or Honda Civic Hybrid. These are economy hybrids, and the focus here is what people generally think of when they think hybrid: high miles per gallon, low emissions, and, as a result, not-so-hot performance. Of these, however the Ford Escape Hybrid does not qualify for access into HOV lanes, because it generates less than 45 mpg – a ridiculous ruling, when you consider that even the gas-sipping Prius is lucky to get 45 in real-world driving.
Why doesn't the Prius offer a plug-in option so it can run in electric-only mode? Great efforts went into making hybrid cars so they DON'T have to be plugged in. If a car is converted, it will have a negative effect on the life of the batteries and the reality is that it's likely the grid electricity being used is derived from coal, so there's not much, if any, savings to the environment. Additionally, the electric-only mode would be good for less than a mile at low speed, so the practicality of it is very limited.
Diesel vs. Hybrid
HOV lanes, tax breaks
HOV Lane Access: The hybrid single occupant exemption was recently extended, which is great news for hybrid commuters – but not all of ‘em. In California, for example, only those who buy a Honda Civic Hybrid, a 2001-04 Honda Insight or a Toyota Prius qualify, while these hybrids don’t: the Ford Escape Hybrid, Honda Accord Hybrid, 2005 Honda Insight (emissions), a Lexus RX 400h, Mercury Mariner Hybrid, Toyota Highlander Hybrid. All were disqualified due to fuel economy and emissions: less then 45 mpg and a partial zero emissions (PZEV) rating gets you a pass straight into the traffic-choked regular lanes.