By on September 20, 2011

From all the hype it gets, you would think hybrid technology is intrinsically green—and many Americans, including some policy-makers actually believe that. The Union of Concerned Scientists’ (UCS) new hybrid scorecard lays that canard to rest.

In fact, most any technology that can boost efficiency can boost power instead, and vice versa. Thus, UCS’ evaluation found that just three of 34 hybrids achieved greenhouse emissions reductions—and commensurate fuel savings—of more than 40 percent, and another 10 surpassed 25 percent reductions. In contrast, the 21 mpg hybrid VW Touareg saves just 10 percent on mpgs compared to its conventional ICE counterpart, using the hybrid advantage mostly to boost horsepower from 280 to 380. Also sacrificing major greenitude for power are the Lexus LS 600h L and the BMW ActiveHybrid X6. Meanwhile, a bunch of GM SUVs, the Cayenne S and the Altima hybrid, according to UCS, while not scraping the bottom, do a lousy job of  maximizing efficiency.

Interestingly, the top efficiency booster is not the car whose name is synonymous with automotive greenitude among the NPR crowd (I am probably making a gross generalization here, especially since Sam Brownback has a Prius but gross demographic generalizations are fun and easy). I’m talking about the Lincoln MKZ, the hybrid version of which boosts gas mileage to 39 mpg from 21 mpg in the ICE version, for a 46.2% increase (and is a cost-free upgrade). The 50 mpg Prius beats its comparable non-hybrid, the Matrix, by 44.0%, while the Lexus CT200h reduces fuel consumption by 42.9% (The latter is a noisy wimp, though, according to the October Consumer Reports).

The UCS website also provides an overall figure for greenitude, which combines greenhouse emissions reduction with smog reduction–the two don’t necessarily go together; a figure for hybrid cost-effectiveness, and a measure of “forced features,” or the cost of options that you have to buy to get the hybrid.

The site also includes an interactive page where you can plug in your state, what you pay for gas, and your annual mileage, to compare the annual cost of fueling different cars, as well as their hybrid features, and other specifications.

A more in-depth analysis by the author is available at Environmental Health Perspectives.

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50 Comments on “Roses Are Red, Hybrids Are Green… Except When They’re Tuned For Power, Not Efficiency...”


  • avatar
    Philosophil

    Interesting.

    In all honestly, much of this ‘greening’ of the marketplace is designed more to make people feel good about themselves or to leave a good impression on others rather than truly reduce one’s ecological ‘footprint.’ These are good examples of the marketing of ‘green’ more as a fad or fashion statement than an environmentally motivated choice.

    Keep up the good work David.

    • 0 avatar
      NormSV650

      Reminds me of Southparks’s “Smug alert” episode. :)

      Take most 4-cylinder ICE cars and beat EPA mpg by about 25-40%. Small tires/wheels, aerodynamics, and some gearing changes is all it takes. And light weight fluids like Toyota did on the 2012 Camry helps in colder climates.

  • avatar
    HiFlite999

    I’ve been arguing a point for some years now: the primary efficiency gain of the “green” label is to get people to accept perfectly reasonable 0-60 mph times of ~10 seconds. This applies the rather huge gains in ICE technology of the past 20 years to efficiency rather than holy horsepower which is seldom used and rarely needed.

    I’d love to see the national speed limit set via engine controls to 30 mpg *or* 65 mph with a fuel cutoff at 66. It’d be fun to watch Miata turbo diesels running 90 mph past bloated bargemobiles.

    • 0 avatar
      Acubra

      Let me guess. You never engaged in an overtaking manouver on a 2-lane, right?
      Your suggestion will be killing people as surely as banning the brakes. Unless that is your ultimate goal. (:

      • 0 avatar
        stuntmonkey

        My current car and my previous car were both 10s 0-60 cars and they pass just fine on the freeway. If you need any more than that there’s no reasonable point to overtaking… traffic flow is already going above the legal limit.

    • 0 avatar
      Dr. Kenneth Noisewater

      I’d love to see the national speed limit set via engine controls to 30 mpg *or* 65 mph with a fuel cutoff at 66. It’d be fun to watch Miata turbo diesels running 90 mph past bloated bargemobiles.

      I’d rather leave the freedom of choice on what vehicles to own and how to drive them to the citizenry. Taxing gasoline so that it’s only affordable to median incomes at 30mpg at highway speeds on the other hand.. I can get behind that.

    • 0 avatar
      Robstar

      Nice. I would so drop $2500 on a used ninja250 & then just peg it out. A diesel KLR650 would be nice as well.

    • 0 avatar
      TrailerTrash

      Really?

      You are really suggesting this???

      So when will you suggest that all foods get officially calorie limited?
      How about the electronic penis shut down so in fact IF you have had your 2.5 kids, you can’t impregnate another girl? With fewer births I can drive as much and drive as fast as I want.
      It NOT a environment problem…it’s a people problem!
      There are to many frigging people!!!!

      I think there should be a dumb limiter.

      Clean up your own lives and leave me the hell alone.

  • avatar
    Acubra

    “many Americans, including some policy-makers actually believe that”
    As with many recent hypes and fashions, that is the core problem IMAO: they just _believe_. Without any understanding (or any desire/ability to understand).
    And all the so called USC findings are useless if they do not account for the complete life cycle (raw materials/manufacturing/recycling) of these vehicles. A barebones F-150 may turn out as striking far less of an impact on the environment than any hybrid.

    • 0 avatar
      psarhjinian

      A barebones F-150 may turn out as striking far less of an impact on the environment than any hybrid.

      This has actually been done, and the answer is no, it doesn’t unless you make serious assumptions about how long a vehicle will remain on the road, such as, eg, conventional vehicles lasting three times as long as a hybrid.

      Which depends wholly on the vehicle in question, and hybrids—Honda’s weaksauce implementations aside—are turning out to be pretty reliable.

  • avatar
    eggsalad

    One can say the same about any addition to an ICE. Turbos, for example, can be tuned to add power or efficiency, but not both.

    The turbo engine in the Sonic and Cruze seems to be more tuned to getting more efficiency. Same with the non-USA Fiat 500 Turbo-Air.

  • avatar
    Carlson Fan

    “A barebones F-150 may turn out as striking far less of an impact on the environment than any hybrid”

    Don’t kid yourself. 97% of a vehicles carbon footprint over it’s liftime(build to scrap) is spewn out of its tailpipe.

    • 0 avatar
      Acubra

      Who said I worry about carbon footprint?

      • 0 avatar
        TrailerTrash

        Truly…I cannot think of a more stupid concept than that of the carbon footprint!
        I mean, really?
        The footprint is out of control once you come into this world!
        Enough already of the self flagellation and guilt!

        I have brothers who really act as if this is an importance…and then think they are doing things to offset the so called footprint of their many global fights for vacations!

        How can you actually find the footprint you are causing?
        Can you add up ALL the plastics and waste resulted in all your possessions?
        The earthly cost of all the food production it takes to feed you in just a year?

        The ability of the mind to tangle itself in such way convinces me once again the dire position the human monkey is in.

  • avatar
    dingram01

    “In contrast, the 21 mpg hybrid VW Touareg saves just 10 percent on mpgs compared to its conventional ICE counterpart, using the hybrid advantage mostly to boost horsepower from 280 to 380.”

    I don’t know if it’s entirely fair to say that hybrid technology doesn’t achieve a green goal in the above example, if only because we should probably be comparing the hybrid version to the theoretical 380-hp ICE version. What MPG rating would such an ICE drivetrain achieve, against what the hybrid version does?

    In other words, you may be looking for more acceleration, but if you can do so more efficiently with a hybrid drivetrain compared to a high-output gas version, shouldn’t that count for something?

    Although I do agree, hybrids ARE mainly advertised as a gas- and emissions-saving option. So if you’re just expecting higher MPG, it’s misleading.

    • 0 avatar
      psarhjinian

      Hybrids are a way to improve powertrain efficiency. That’s really all they do.

      There’s a cost to this, just like there’s a cost to fuel injection, variable valve timing, electronic throttles, overdrive transmissions, lockup torque converters, electrically-driven accessories, aerodynamic tweaks and so forth. That cost is pretty high right now, but it’s highly unlikely that it will stay high, while the price of fuel is probably not going to do down appreciably in the long term.

      • 0 avatar
        jhott997

        Hybrids are a way to improve fuel “efficiency”; or better said fuel usage. It is incorrect to say that a “hybrid” powertrain is more “efficient”.
        A “hybrid” powertrain is not more efficient than a standard ICE and planetary transmission powertrain.
        “hybrids” burn less fuel, yes; this does not make them more efficient mechanically or thermodynamically.
        A nuance, yes, but let’s be careful here.

      • 0 avatar
        jmo

        A “hybrid” powertrain is not more efficient than a standard ICE and planetary transmission powertrain.

        A “hybrid” powertrain uses regenerative braking, that means it’s more efficient as it converts some of the braking force into electricity that is later used for propulsion rather than converting all braking energy into heat.

      • 0 avatar
        musiccitymafia

        Simply a different definition for the word efficiency ….

      • 0 avatar
        jhott997

        musiccitymafia.
        Not really. This site used to be about the “truth”. Just saying…

      • 0 avatar
        jhott997

        jmo.
        I would like to see the data because in all of my work your statement is not true.

  • avatar
    jfbramfeld

    It makes no sense to compare a 300 hp hybrid to its 200 hp original model. It needs to be compared to other 300 hp vehicles.

    I notice that green people tend to think that they own certain technologies. If a speed guy wants to use an electric motor boost, how does the opinion of Mr. Sustainability become relevant? It reminds me of the dispute over “organic” foods.

    I am thinking of putting a windmill in my back yard to power my uranium centrifuge.

  • avatar
    MarkP

    My 2001 Golf TDI has a mind-boggling 90 horsepower, and I seldom have trouble overtaking traffic on a winding 2-lane road. True, I need to do some planning, and I could pass more easily and in a few more places if I had 250 hp, but I manage by using all 90 of the horses I have. I even had to pass a Corvette on one occasion just to get directly behind the tractor-trailer that was holding everyone up. My 0-60 time is pretty pitiful, but passing at 2-lane speeds iis pretty easy. And I still get 48+ mpg day in and day out.

    • 0 avatar

      I have vivid memories of passing on France’s twisty 2 lane highways (1 in each direction) in 1965-66 in our 1965 Peugeot 404 station wagon. It was nerve wracking! That car had 76hp according to Wickipedia, and while that’s not the last word, it was probably somewhere around there. The car weighed 2500 lbs, my family of origin probably weighed another 500 lbs.

  • avatar
    KixStart

    A vehicle that is not running its engine at a red light is far more “efficient” than one that is idling; almost any hybrid can be a big win in city traffic.

    Hybridization is a technology that is useful for a variety of purposes.

    People look for some combination of fun, up-front cost, utility, luxury, utility, operating cost, etc, in their cars. Different strokes for different folks and different drivetrains, too.

    • 0 avatar
      jhott997

      “A vehicle that is not running its engine at a red light is far more “efficient” than one that is idling”
      I understand what you are getting at.
      But technically it uses LESS FUEL. This is not the same as “efficiency”. I know layman throw around the word “efficiency” but there really is a technical definition of efficiency. energy out/energy in = % efficiency.
      When a car is sitting at a light with the engine off there is no energy in.

      Hybrid vehicles, technically, are less efficient. However, they burn less fuel (which is the metric everyone is familar with: (miles/gallon)) so people believe this to be they are “more efficient”. They are not.

      • 0 avatar
        protomech

        Calling a hybrid vehicle less efficient is a pretty big stretch.

        Conventional ICE vehicle has energy input in terms of fuel, energy losses by way of engine heat, brake heat, drag, rolling losses (tire heat, transmission heat).

        Conventional closed-loop hybrid vehicle has those same energy inputs and same energy outputs (though often each of the losses is minimized, eg different engine cycle, aero tweaks, lower rolling resistance tires), PLUS they can recover some kinetic energy back into the battery and then spool it out again (50-70% efficient round trip).

        Even if you consider energy from the battery to be an energy input (without considering the reduced energy losses in brake heat), the electrical motor is still 85-90% efficient. Combined with the 20-25% efficient ICE, total system efficiency goes up significantly.

      • 0 avatar
        DC Bruce

        I don’t get this, either, if you’re going to use “efficiency” in any meaningful way. The hybrid vehicle captures some energy that is otherwise dumped into the atmosphere (through the brakes or through engine compression against a closed throttle); it may allow the ICE to operate more of the time in its most efficient (in your sense of the word) zone (by supplementing the ICE’s power in, for example, acceleration) and it avoids wasting fuel by reducing or eliminating idling when the vehicle is stopped.

      • 0 avatar
        psarhjinian

        Calling a hybrid vehicle less efficient is a pretty big stretch.

        No, it’s accurate, just pedantic. If you talk only about the powertrain and thermodynamics and ignore holistic energy-to-work, then yes, a hybrid is potentially less efficient.

        It’s a perfectly valid way to talk about, eg, gas generators. In the context of how people drive, though, not so much.

    • 0 avatar
      jhott997

      psarhjinian.
      You are very interested in others being pedantic. How ironic….
      This site used to be about the “truth”. I have noticed an awful lot less of the truth around here of late. Anyway.
      Yes I am interested in the small details of efficiency because I grow tired of people throwing around the statement without a definition. I have seen plenty of “hybrid” powertrains in testing and I can promise you all that they are not as efficient as advertised. But, again, “truth” be damned…
      Enough said. It is probably best to leave the technical discussions off this site.

      • 0 avatar
        psarhjinian

        You are very interested in others being pedantic. How ironic….

        I didn’t say I’m not a pedant either. It takes one to know one.

        And pigeonholing the definition of “efficiency” to “energy-in/energy-out” terms so that you can grind a figurative axe about hybrid powertrains is pretty pedantic.

        I can promise you all that they are not as efficient as advertised

        Define “efficient as advertised” please, and do cite where, eg, Toyota is making claims about thermodynamic efficiency of the powertrain on a bench, because all the ad copy does, at best, it talk about emissions and fuel economy.

        You might not like that, but I didn’t hear or see the words “Carnot cycle” in the last Prius ad I saw while standing in an elevator. I did see a little cartoon hummingbird press a crosswalk button, though.

        Enough said. It is probably best to leave the technical discussions off this site.

        Ok, sure, since I haven’t seen you break out the math either, that’s pretty much what we’re doing.

  • avatar
    gslippy

    The UCS promotes a global warming ‘sky is falling’ agenda, and one that identifies the US as the prime ‘culprit’. They also promote ‘cap-and-trade’ and international “family planning efforts”, which is usually code for legalized abortion and/or regulated growth limits.

    I have no time for them.

    • 0 avatar

      Not THE prime culprit. A prime culprit.

      Abortion isn’t family planning. Abortion is what you do when the family planning was neglected, or when some key element somehow failed.

      Family planning involves making birth control devices and medications (the pill, the IUD, condoms, etc.) as widely and inexpensively available as possible, and educating people in their use. Do you have a problem with that?

      do you have any idea what the world population is now? How recently it was only half of what it is now? And what date it is projected to reach 50 percent more than where it is now? Do you have any idea what proportion of the world could have an American style lifestyle indefinitely even with just the current population?

      • 0 avatar
        geeber

        The population of many western European countries is either stagnant or falling. Italy and Germany, for example, face serious demographic challenges in the future based on their current very low birth rates.

        The population in Japan is projected to decline in the future as well.

        The population of the United States would be growing very slowly, if at all, except for immigration.

        The overpopulation problem isn’t in the “developed” world.

      • 0 avatar
        aspade

        The developed world is not an island. Three billion rapidly mechanizing asians are most of why commodity prices have gone insane. Not insane in the developing world. Insane here. India alone has added an entire United States’ worth of people in the past 20 years.

        There’s nothing remotely good about this, and turning those three billion into five will only make it worse and faster.

      • 0 avatar
        jplew138

        Following this discussion, one word comes to mind…”eugenics”. Pure and simple.

      • 0 avatar
        charly

        World population is now more than 6.9 billion people and not projected to reach 10 billion ever.

        Geeber, Japan population is already declining unlike Germany and Italy and sub Sahara Africa is outside a few Asian countries too see any growth based in the number of babies. But sub Sahara Africa problem is more underpopulation than overpopulation

      • 0 avatar

        @charly

        You’re wrong. Earlier this year the UN projected 10 billion-plus by 2100. http://www.un.org/en/development/desa/news/population/population-exceed-10-billion.html

        You’re also wrong about sub-Saharan Africa. That region is projected to roughly double in a generation. Then you can say goodbye to elephants (one of the few animal species, members of which can recognize themselves in mirrors, a hallmark of very high intelligence), and the rest of the megafauna.

  • avatar
    golden2husky

    …Meanwhile, a bunch of GM SUVs, the Cayenne S and the Altima hybrid, according to UCS, while not scraping the bottom, do a lousy job of maximizing efficiency…

    Being that going for power is what killed the Accord Hybrid – enthusiasts didn’t give it a look and mileage minded folks weren’t interested in the power, that does not mean a balance can be achieved. I think Nissan did just that with the Altima, which I (don’t) understand is being discontinued. Consider that the hybrid drivetrain is basically a Prius, it returns for me 33 MPG. Not what a Prius delivers, but it offers enough power to actually be fun to drive. I am glad they did not go for max mileage; if I wanted that I would have selected a Prius. Instead they offered a fun to drive car that returns about 10 MPGs more than what a regular Altima offers. A good job in my opinion.

  • avatar
    niky

    Populations in some developed countries are falling simply because the middle class of those countries have to do increasing amounts of work and spend increasing amounts of money just to tread water.

    The third world, on the other hand, doesn’t have that problem. Lower consumer prices and booming economies make for great baby factories. And those babies are going to want to consume at Western levels pretty soon.

    Why does every anti-family-planning proponent always point to Japan? Japan has one of the worst cost-of-living equations on the planet and they’ve been in recession for, like… forever. Of course people aren’t going to want to have kids…

    Regenerative braking works, but not well. There are some EV enthusiasts who pine that it isn’t worth the extra cost simply because the margins of recovery are too small. The biggest contribution of the hybrid system to fuel economy are in pulse-and-glide coasting (which is easier done in the Prius with the regen minimized) and the fact that you can turn the engine completely off at idle and up to 25-30 mph.

    Overtaking? As someone who drives a 75 horsepower diesel truck everyday (barely hits 80 mph) and a 175 horsepower compact every other, I’d say it’s over-rated. I used to think overtaking mattered, but then I realized: If the car ahead of you is going too fast for you to overtake comfortably, then you’re going fast enough.

    Passing a car that’s already going 50-60 mph uphill on a winding two lane isn’t a need, it’s a want. An impatient, reckless, want. Just sit back and keep your momentum while waiting for an opportune time to pass.

    • 0 avatar
      geeber

      niky: Why does every anti-family-planning proponent always point to Japan? Japan has one of the worst cost-of-living equations on the planet and they’ve been in recession for, like… forever. Of course people aren’t going to want to have kids…

      How do you explain Germany, which is hardly an economic basket case, has generous benefits for families with children, and is also experiencing a decline in population? How do you explain that Austria, Denmark, Finland and Italy are all forecast to experience a decline in population in the coming years, despite generous government benefits for families with children?

      For that matter, the population growth of the United States would largely be stagnant if it weren’t for immigration.

      niky: An impatient, reckless, want. Just sit back and keep your momentum while waiting for an opportune time to pass.

      Not if you have enough power to do it properly. Passing on a two-lane road is hardly reckless or a sign of impatience.

      And in many states, not all two-lane roads are flat. In Pennsylvania, the majority of two lane roads are winding. “Being patient” means following the slower vehicles for 20 miles. Sorry, but here in the real world, that is unacceptable.

  • avatar
    cheezeweggie

    Correct me if I’m wrong (I’m sure somebody will), but aren’t diesel/electric locomotive engines technically considered hybrids? They are tuned for both power and efficiency.

    • 0 avatar
      another_pleb

      Diesel-Electrics locos provide power direct to the traction motors without any being stored in batteries to be fed back later so the diesel engine is always on. The electrical traction motors are more like gearboxes in this regard.

      There are some modern locos and multiple units which are capable of storing electrical power and feeding it back to the traction motors allowing the diesel engine to shut down or go into idle mode. However, this probably works best for busy commuter lines with lots of stopping and starting as hybrids are less good at steady cruising than a pure ICE system.

    • 0 avatar
      Signal11

      Diesel-electric hybrids have been around for a long time, used for many different applications.

      When the details of the Honda Insight first leaked out, I was still a student. I was hanging out in the department lounge when the department chair comes in and says, “Hey check this out. Looks like Honda’s managed to miniaturize a Haulpak!”

  • avatar
    Steven02

    If find it funny that they list MPG improvement on the vehicles, then base their scores off of that. But, the reduction calculations are flawed. It looks at the reduction compared to a hybrid model as a percentage, but doesn’t look at over all reduction.

    Cadillac 4wd
    15 mpg = 15.7 L/100km
    21 mpg = 11.2 L/100km

    Prius
    28 mpg = 8.4 L/100km
    50 mpg = 4.7 L/100km

    Looks like the Caddy reduces fuel consumption more than does the Prius.

    Now, I am not trying to say that the Prius is less or efficient or anything, but that actual consumption reduction is more important than percentage reduction.

    • 0 avatar
      protomech

      There’s definitely rapidly diminishing practical returns on increasing efficiency on an already-efficient vehicle, at least for commuter transportation.

      Using your numbers, the prius has 44% lower fuel consumption than its 28 mpg counterpart, and uses 235 gallons less fuel per year. The cadillac offers only 29% lower consumption, but the hybridization process on the less efficient vehicle saves 286 gallons less fuel per year.

      So when you’re focused solely on how much fuel you’re saving, hybridizing the large trucks makes more sense.

      But that’s not all.

      Let’s look at a 2011 Matrix 1.8L / 4A vs 2011 Prius Two. Invoice for the Matrix is $19.4k delivered vs $22.9k for the Prius. Adjust for features, and the Matrix is $19.4k vs $20.4k Prius. Hybridization? $1k.

      Escalade AWD vs Escalade Hybrid AWD? Invoice price, base vs base is $3k delta, adjust for features and it’s still a $2.3k delta. As a percentage of the total sticker, it is indeed smaller; but you save more fuel per dollar of the hybridization upgrade with the smaller cars.

      • 0 avatar
        Steven02

        I don’t think cost was anywhere in this diagram, only mpg and associated reduction in emissions based on mpg improvement. I think their methods are flawed from this perspective. One saves more gas and is actually more important if you are going to be considering buying a vehicle or the same vehicle with a hybrid option. From a fuel consumption reduction, but not a cost perspective, it looks like the Escalade 4wd hybrid is the best.

        But, if you want to include cost in hybridization, the Escalade 4wd hybrid would also save more cash at the pump. Granted, you would also be spending more.

        What I wanted to show is that the associated calculation is terrible flawed in what they are doing.

  • avatar
    jfbramfeld

    It makes no sense to compare a 300 hp hybrid to its 200 hp original model. It needs to be compared to other 300 hp vehicles.

    I notice that green people tend to think that they own certain technologies. If a speed guy wants to use an electric motor boost, how does the opinion of Mr. Sustainability become relevant? It reminds me of the dispute over “organic” foods.

    I am thinking of putting a windmill in my back yard to power my uranium centrifuge.

  • avatar
    sportyaccordy

    The environmental impact of the battery completely wipes out any fuel economy benefits. People don’t seem to want to look out farther than their own noses with these things


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