Roses Are Red, Hybrids Are Green… Except When They're Tuned For Power, Not Efficiency

David C. Holzman
by David C. Holzman

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 Perspective s.

David C. Holzman
David C. Holzman

I'm a freelance journalist covering science, medicine, and automobiles.

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  • Jfbramfeld Jfbramfeld on Sep 21, 2011

    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.

  • Sportyaccordy Sportyaccordy on Sep 21, 2011

    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

  • 3-On-The-Tree Lou_BCsame here I grew up on 2-stroke dirt bikes had a 1985 Yamaha IT200 2-strokes then a 1977 Suzuki GT750 2-stroke 750 streetike fast forward to 2002 as a young flight school Lieutenant I bought a 2002 suzuki Hayabusa 1300 up in Huntsville Alabama. Still have that bike.
  • Milton Rented one for about a month. Very solid EV. Not as fun as my Polestar, but for a go to family car, solid. Practical EV ownership is only made possible with a home charger.
  • J Love mine, but the steering wheel blocks dashboard a bit, can't see turn signals nor headlights icons. They could use the upper corners of the screen for the turn signals. Mileage is much lower than shown too, disappointing
  • Aja8888 NO!
  • OrpheusSail I once did. My first four cars were American made, and through an odd set of circumstances surrounding a divorce, I wound up with a '95 Nissan Maxima which was fourteen years old and had about 150,000 miles on it.It was drove better, had an amazing engine, and was more reliable than any of my American cars. This included a new '95 GMC pickup that went through five alternators in under two years while the dealership insisted that there was no underlying electrical problem while they tried to run the clock on the warranty.That was the end of 'buy American'. I've bought from Honda and VW since, and I'll consider just about anything except American now.