By on July 7, 2010

Plugins are range anxiety on wheels. Hybrids are expensive, and usually come with a payback time longer than the average lease. In some cases, longer than your life. Lugging a big battery and two engines around can defeat the purpose. Hybrids are also expensive to develop. In Europe, the strategy has been to improve the old ICE as much as possible. Midsize automakers in Japan go the same route, with sometimes surprising results. Their gasoline-powered cars beg the question: Why go to the hybrid trouble at all?

Next year, Mazda will release a compact car with a 3liter /100km (78 mpg)  consumption,  “making it the most efficient car of its size in the world,” says The Nikkei. [sub]. Mr. Piech will chuckle, or get mad when he hears that. His Lupo 3L hit the 3 liter mark in 1999, but it didn’t sell. The lightweight space-age materials made it too expensive. Mazda is going the same route, hopefully with more success. They developed a gas engine that is 15 percent  more efficient than the current design and a new diesel mill that is 20 percent more efficient. Mazda also trimmed 100kg in weight from the body.

If coming in as advertised, the new Mazda would beat Honda’s Insight hybrid. It uses 3.33 l / 100km (70.6 mpg). Mazda hasn’t set a price yet, but promises it will be competitive with other compacts. Eyeing potential in emerging markets, with their growing middle classes, the company plans to sell its new engines to foreign automakers.

Suzuki will introduce a new Swift this fall with a 10 percent better mileage and no price premium.

Later this year, Fuji Heavy will equip its Subarus with engines that are 10 percent more fuel efficient. As a further savings measure, the larger models will get CVT transmissions.

Daihatsu said they will release a gas-powered minicar with the same fuel efficiency as a hybrid next year.

Mitsubishi Motors will launch a fuel-efficient compact next year. Production of some of the new cars will be moved to emerging markets.

Says the Nikkei: “Fuel-efficient models are becoming the top-selling car type worldwide. Hybrids are catching on in Japan and other rich nations but not in developing countries. Lacking the resources to develop their own hybrids, midsize automakers are focusing on tapping emerging-market demand with better gas-powered models.”

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34 Comments on “Hybrids: Who Needs Them?...”


  • avatar
    rtt108

    Let me guess … NONE of these will be available in the US.

    • 0 avatar
      niky

      VW already showed you could build a fantastically economical small car. Nobody in Europe bought them. The same goes for the US. Watch the sales movement as the economy recovers… people are getting out of small cars and back into big ones.

      Rich markets don’t want small cars. They want big car convenience with small car fuel economy… thus… hybrids!

    • 0 avatar
      Greg Locock

      If you really want these cars in the USA increase the tax on gasoline. Otherwise they’ll never sell in enough volume to justify importing them.

      Are you /sure/ that is what you want?

  • avatar
    niky

    That last part is the kicker. Hybrids are well out of reach of most people in the developing world (and poorer drivers in developing countries), but gasoline-powered vehicles with tiny engines aren’t.

    The hybrid niche is here to stay, however… thanks to rich markets like the US and Japan that can afford them… but their global penetration will remain small unless and until batteries go way down in price. While battery makers are hopeful on this last part, I’m not sure that the volume they foresee that will trigger this price drop will ever come about.

  • avatar
    IGB

    I agree. Hybrid components are heavy, expensive and suck the enjoyment out of a vehicle. Having said that, it’s one cog in the efficiency improvement wheel. It won’t work in the second or third world, probably only in the US but maybe a little bit in Europe.

    Efficiency in the developing world will be critical to keep oil demand on a steady as opposed to parabolic increase.

    • 0 avatar
      vww12

      People in developed world: 1 billion.

      People in less developed world: 5 billion.

      No matter how efficient their cars, once they get one, their fuel consumption skyrockets.

  • avatar
    shaker

    In Consumer Reports tests, the new Sonata with the 6-speed auto and 2.4 198hp engine has the same overall mileage as the Elantra 2.0L with the 4-speed auto. The Sonata weighs 400lbs more, yet is 1.8 sec. quicker to 60 mph. The new Sonata can be had for 21,000, nicely equipped.

    If this paradigm is repeated across the industry, it will have a much larger impact than hybrid technology. That said, the Sonata Hybrid (due in the fall), will likely have stellar mileage – for those who want to pay for it – but hybrids and their cost premium will not be sufficient to drive a manufacturer’s MPG average up – efficiency improvements across the board in affordable vehicles is the way to go.

  • avatar
    dwford

    Let’s encapsulate what we have been saying here for a long time: Hybrids are too expensive relative to the $ amount of gas saved, and there are not enough people in the US willing to buy tiny cars to save just a bit more fuel vs the next size up – especially when there is not a substantial price break – so no, these tiny cars are NOT coming.

  • avatar
    thalter

    I don’t think anyone expects that Hybrids are a long term solution. However, they are a very important bridge to an all-electric future. Hybrids serve as important test beds in the development (and cost reduction) of battery and computer control technology.

  • avatar
    Stingray

    And maybe the 3rd world won’t get the turbo and gasoline direct injection technology right away (it’s also expensive) but surely will benefit from the advances of improved fuel economy/emissions modern engines are having.

    I would expect a move to CNG and LPG too in the future. In fact some 3rd world countries are already using CNG.

  • avatar
    niky

    LPG. Tons of taxis in Asia run on it. My car runs on it. It’s dirt cheap, doesn’t require a huge amount of psi in storage (like CNG does), and it’s available everywhere.

    • 0 avatar
      nikita

      LPG still comes from crude oil, a byproduct of gasoline/diesel/jet refining. If large numbers of vehicles convert, supply/demand will drive up the price to gasoline/diesel levels. Methane can come from different sources, so CNG and LNG, while harder to transport and dispense, may be a more viable fuel in many countries.

      When taxed as a road fuel, LPG is not cheaper than gasoline here in California. CNG, incuding taxes, is significantly cheaper.

  • avatar
    mcs

    The mileage numbers quoted in the article are highway numbers which are totally useless when comparing hybrids vs. non-hybrids in urban environments. Even the epa’s city ratings are useless. You need real world heavy stop and go traffic to do a real comparison.

    I have both a hybrid and a 40 mpg conventional car. In very heavy stop and go traffic the 40 mpg car drops into the teens. That’s not a problem with the hybrid. With start/stop technology the conventional cars numbers could be improved, but you still have the other advantage with hybrids: the regen brakes. They do a great job in extending brake life – so far 25% further past when I usually need brakes. Furthermore, crawling through miles of stop and go traffic on 128 in Boston is brutal on a conventional engine. The hybrid’s ICE has an easier life and because of that I think it will last much longer.

    I think for non-urban traffic vehicles, light weight vehicles small displacement vehicles with start/stop technology are probably the way to go. But for heavy duty traffic, hybrids rule for now.

    • 0 avatar
      Rusted Source

      The mileage numbers quoted in the article are highway numbers which are totally useless when comparing hybrids vs. non-hybrids in urban environments.

      Unless your name is GM. Then it’s okay to openly advertise that the GMC Terrain gets better highway fuel economy than a Ford Escape Hybrid.

  • avatar
    jaje

    The Prius / Insight (et. al) hybrids will be looked at in history as the wrong direction. Why? First off they add a $3k – $5k expense to the engine/drivetrain of a car and substantially increase the weight of the car with huge arrays of batteries. Owners will never get back their extra investment b/c by the time the extra mileage will get close to helping them break even 8+ years down the road – they then need to replace $3-$5k in batteries and pay a hefty recycling fee for the old ones.

    Worse off is the interesting factoid I was told is that a Prius creates more greenhouse gasses and consumes more rare earth elements in production than a H2 (making it an overall waste of precious metals and higher producer of emissions before you even buy the car)! Laughingly, hybrids are about “conservation” but in reality they are exact opposite in the end when you add up all their drawbacks. I do like discussing with hybrid enthusiasts why a Prius is better for the environment than a 34mpg Corolla (hint…it is not but the “smug” factor from the Prius driver is even more vile).

    The hybrid advantage is also much smaller than most thing. With modern enhancements to the petrol ICE such as direct injection, smaller engines with forced induction and with MFGRs now adding start/stop technology (two way alternator which acts as a generator during braking and a slight larger battery) we are already getting close to similar mileage as today’s most advanced hybrids but at a much lower cost to the consumer…and to the environment.

    Switch from a petrol ICE to diesel ICE and you gain an increase of 30%+ in fuel efficiency. If you need proof as to why diesels are superior in gas mileage – only look to the transportation industry where diesel engines are the norm specifically b/c of the much better gas mileage than their petrol counterparts. At this time I understand the diesel increase to a normal car’s price is $1k but it is only b/c of the lack of mass production – as you build more cars with diesel engines they become cheaper to the point were petrol engines (that have to have timing / ignition systems / extra draw on electrical systems) may no longer be cheaper.

    Small cars do sell in the US if they are done well and even at a premium – see Honda Civic or Mini Cooper. History proves it. When you make into penalty boxes with subpar engineering destined for rental fleets or retail shoppers who want $4k off on a $14k car you get the Cavalier / Cobalt.

    For those 1-2 hour rush hour commuters who move 5 mph most of the way constantly stopping…what the heck are you doing? I did the grind for a year trying to commute from NorVa to DC and hated it. I took the Metro which worked well enough – let me get work done / read on the way to save my sanity at the time. In the end I got a job close to where I lived so I could have a short drive or bike to work (exercise is good for us right?). Now I work from home most of the time as I worked it out with my employer that I’m not needed in the office 24/7 to do my job. This is a tactic I’d wish most people would attempt – but in small steps with their employer.

    • 0 avatar
      LectroByte

      Wrong on so many points, I don’t even know where to begin. The H2/Prius comparison thing has been thoroughly debunked elsewhere… The battery pack only weighs 80 lbs.

    • 0 avatar
      jaje

      LectroByte – Please also add in the weight of the rest of the hybrid system over a conventional car – not just the battery pack (so that is > 80 lbs). And the $3k-$5k premium you pay over a petrol powered ICE that gets mid 30′s mpg.

      Can you show me the debunking of the production greenhouse gas emissions for hybrids? I’ve not yet been able to see that b/c I can’t find anything with all the junk in a Web search – mostly finding pro hybrid sites that only consider the emissions from the cars after they are produced. Just like plug in lovers claim how they are saving the environment by plugging into the coal powered grid (does not take into effect). Even fueleconomy.gov doesn’t give me any overall info except mpg or yearly costs – not considering production footprint.

    • 0 avatar
      Russycle

      Here’s a link with more info about the Prius vs Hummer:
      http://news.cnet.com/8301-17938_105-9750840-1.html

      The money quote:
      “Dr. Gleick’s paper pokes holes in the original study, pointing out its poor assumptions such as the usable life of a Hummer H1 (35 years) versus the life of a Prius (11) years. The original study also based its conclusions on the lifetime miles of a Prius versus a Hummer H1, where it assumed 109,000 miles versus 379,000 miles, respectively. The 109,000 mile figure for the Prius is truly bizarre, as many people have documented their Priuses getting well over this number. “

    • 0 avatar
      jaje

      I’m not sure how to digest this since it is over the vehicles useable life (limiting the Prius to only 8 years when the batteries are kaput) – that should clearly be debunked. My concern was that the emissions creating in producing the Prius and the use of rare earth metals cost more of an environmental impact during production than the poster child of inefficiency. I have no qualms about the Prius over its life is a more efficient choice of car than the Hummer’s abysmal mileage.

    • 0 avatar
      LectroByte

      Batteries are one of the more easily recyclable bits of a car, conventional or hybrid. There’s a bounty on them already, not that I’ve taken mine apart to check, but I hear there’s a sticker offering cash with an 800 number on the battery pack.

      I really don’t understand all the pissing on hybrids all the time, if they don’t make sense to you, then don’t buy one, but they work for me, and my garage included over the years several full size pickups, various Jeep products, several GM’s, a CRX, a Volvo 850 or two, a Mustang or three, and that MGB I don’t like to think about anymore. Stop and go traffic that used to annoy me to no end now becomes a little calmer and quieter as the display shows 60mpg, I can cruise it 75mph down the highway and get 48mpg, or 65mph and get 53mpg. I’d happily buy another one if this one got totalled tomorrow.

  • avatar
    Rada

    Hybrids are heavy? What is the author smoking?

    Prius mileage has been shown to be unbeatable, at least where the US car offerings are concerned. Not even VW diesels come close. And considering that the Prius is a fairly roomy car, not some 1.2L euro-trash econobox, there is no contest.

    By using regenerative braking hybrids will always have better efficiency. Give me the best, most economical ICE engine, and with a hybrid drive the car can be improved by an additional 30-40% in terms of mileage.

  • avatar
    Steven Lang

    Sorry… but we are comparing ricecake to cheesecake here.

    Hybrids can most definitely save money for buyers over the long run. I have exhaustively gone through the economics of ownership (both new and used) and hybrids simply tend to be significant money savers.

    There are three questions though that have to be considered…

    1) Can sporty hybrid models be developed in the near future?

    2) Will the costs of a hybrid drivetrain decline over the long run?

    3) When are hybrids not the best choice?

    A lot of you disagree about my opinion regarding the Honda CR-Z (to say the least). But I think it will eventually represent a turning for hybrids where ‘sportiness’ takes root. With some very minor modifications these models will be able to hit 0 to 60 in the 6′s… and I can see a lot of Honda dealers adding these features in a way similar to the way special wheels and custom trim packages are used today.

    Everyone says that hybrid powertrains will cost less over the long run. That will be a constant battle between engineering, manufacturing techniques, assembly processes and raw material costs.

    Finally… like you I don’t see hybrids making in-roads to the developing world. Diesel is plentiful and far cheaper to refine than the ULSD in the states. Small cars are already a defacto standard. Plus midsized cars are making those incremental gains towards a real world 30+ mpg average. Small cars can already offer 40+ mpg in the real world that is the developing world. So the economics of buying hybrids in most of those places will not make sense.

  • avatar
    Libertyman03

    I would buy a Prius and enjoy the perceived savings. Maybe I just don’t buy cars the smart way. The only thing stopping me from buying a Prius (in theory…I don’t have the money or the inclination to ACTUALLY buy one) is the stigma associated with it. I don’t want to be looked at as that typical greenie, so smug with their purchase that they risk accidents just so they can push the pedal lightly enough so as not to start the gas engine.

    I just recently took a road trip in my Chevy Cobalt LS coupe. It’s NOT the “XFE” model, because that little gem (ha ha) wasn’t available yet in 2006, when my car was new. It doesn’t have low rolling-resistance tires or a bank of batteries under the back seat or regen brakes. But I still managed 35-40 miles per gallon over 6000 miles, including stop and go. And it only cost $7000.

    • 0 avatar
      rudiger

      Hybrids (and the Prius, in particular) remind me a great deal of the thirties’ Chrysler Airflow, a car so advanced and radically styled that no one bought them.

      The biggest difference is that hybrids caught a huge break that can be summed up in one word – Katrina. When gas prices skyrocketed, suddenly those weird, expensive hybrids made a lot of sense and gave them the needed foothold in the psyche of the American car buyer.

      The futuristic Airflow, unfortunately, was never able to catch that kind of a break, and it nearly ruined the company.

      Just like the Airflow, over time, hybrid (and other alternate fuel) advanced technology will eventually wend its way into mainstream car production. But in today’s immediate world, well, they’re more of a tougher sell.

  • avatar
    niky

    @nikita: Funny, elsewhere in the world, the price of LPG (even with LPG taxed as an automotive fuel) still works out to around half that of gasoline. Of course… since range on LPG is lower, savings aren’t that great for conversions… but a car specifically made to use LPG instead of gasoline would only cost a fraction more (due to the thicker-walled fuel container) and cost less to run.

    -

    @jaje: that hoary old story is complete bunk. The study set an arbitrary life limit on the Prius compared to the H2 instead of factoring in the real-world useable lifespan of both vehicles. It started with a flawed premise, used flawed and outdated data (re: nickel mines) and didn’t take into account the recyclability of both vehicles.

    -

    Not to say that a hybrid makes complete sense from a lifespan standpoint, except if you’re an urban taxi driver (I have experienced what mcs is talking about… the Prius’s traffic mileage is incredible compared to even modern common-rail diesel compacts). It’s just that it’s a good idea to keep proper perspective here.

    -

    Small diesels rock. My current favorite (and I really do wish my father would simply sell his to me at a “friendly” discount) is the Ford Focus TDCi. 0-60 mph in 8 seconds, gets 47 mpg (US) on the highway, and does a not-so-bad 30 mpg in traffic where a Prius gets 40. And the drive is just sublime.

    And thanks to the lack of hybrid tax breaks in this region, it costs roughly half what a Prius goes for. God bless diesel.

    • 0 avatar
      jaje

      Small diesels are the most efficient choice in the long run b/c their premium over hybrids is much less – in fact at a point where they have proper economies of scale they will probably be as affordable as a normal petrol engine. Add in more advanced fuel injectors coming down the line that heat gas/diesel temps to 400 degrees which stratifies the charge to perfect optimum using less petrol/diesel overall and you are already at the hybrid’s fuel economy for a fraction of the price. Link to article on transonic (which can be retrofitted to older cars): http://www.trendhunter.com/trends/super-efficient-fuel-injection

  • avatar
    jacksonbart

    Battery Makers and the firms that sell lithium salt for one.

  • avatar
    brandloyalty

    Recently a respected auto journalist decried, as he put it, the “enviro-weenies” for buying so few hybrids etc.

    It could be that the true enviros have largely left car ownership, opting instead to live closer to work and services, and/or walk, take transit, bicycle etc.

    On the other side, many people don’t believe in global climate change etc. and so they see no reason to reduce their transportation footprint.

    So the customer base for hybrids etc. may be the small number of people in the thin layer between these groups; people who want to cut back on fuel consumption but aren’t ready to seriously reduce their use of cars.

  • avatar

    Problem is folks have to do math to determine the payoff. Many are unable and unwilling to do it so they justify with some kind of guesstimate of the facts.

    • 0 avatar
      Lumbergh21

      I did do themath a couple of years ago, and while I don’t remember the exact break even point, I know that it was an average gas price of over $6 per gallon, assuming a 10 year return on investment. This was comparing what I know my Mazda6′s (V6, midsize) fuel mileage and purchase price was and comparing it to what a Prius is reported to get and its MSRP.

  • avatar
    niky

    @jaje: The moment a car saves you money, that’s when the lifecycle emissions work out to the positive (of course, that’s a bit debatable as some people like to point out the hidden cost of fuel subsidies. Hey, let’s throw down the hidden cost of electrical, communication and road subsidies while we’re at it, ey? Oh… and let’s remove that pesky hybrid incentive…)…

    Once you’ve saved money, given that everything you’ve paid for is taxed or priced properly, then you’ve come out ahead of the emissions curve. The hybrid’s price premium reflects the extra energy cost of materials and manufacturing that go into it. Once you’ve paid off that premium, you’re in the clear.

    For many people, it won’t make sense. For a few (taxi drivers who do over 100,000 miles a year in urban traffic…), the pay-off is terrific.

    @brandloyalty: Simply… the most eco-conscious thing to do is to walk, bike, motorbike or commute. Saves you a ton of money. Biking and walking are good for your health (unless you’re biking in a crowded city… in which case, your exposure to pollutants is higher than everyone else). And your carbon footprint goes down a whole bunch.

  • avatar

    Why must there be a calculation made by the consumer on hybrid payback time? That only really makes sense in a commercial environment where there is an expected return on investment. I don’t see calls from the best and the brightest to calculate the monetary value of time savings from owning a relatively sporty and quick car, nor are there open advocates for minivan purchases that could be leveraged into carbon saving car pools. Personal vehicles can be strictly utilitarian, but more often than not they are emotional purchases. If we were all rational economic beings, we would all be driving 5-7 year old used cars or be members of Zipcar, and there would be no market for “insert favorite car here.”

    • 0 avatar
      brandloyalty

      Appreciated your insightful comments, JP. New ideas are always given a very hard time, just to make sure they’re not a mistake. But sometimes this quashes ideas we need but resist.


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