Environmentalists have flocked to the Toyota Prius and other hybrids with the intention of "doing their part" to combat global warming by reducing their carbon footprint. But according to the its "Dust to Dust" study, CNW Marketing Research insists that hybrids aren't the most energy-efficient vehicles on the road, not by a long shot. In the newest version of the study, CNW says it measured the cradle-to-grave energy cost of each vehicle model, from the first CAD drawings, through manufacturing, all the way to final recycling and disposal. CNW has distilled those factors down to a single figure for individual models, the total energy cost of a vehicle per mile driven, ranging from a low of about 55 cents to a high of $11.

The compact Ford Focus soared to the top of the list, costing just 55 cents worth of energy per mile and beating out subcompacts like the Chevy Aveo and the Honda Fit, which cost in the range of 60 to 70 cents per mile, according to the CNW study.

A 2010 Prius can be expected to rack up three times the energy costs: $1.89 per mile driven, according to the study. But that's down from $2.19 in 2008 and $2.87 in 2006.

It's no surprise that ultra-luxurious Bentley and Rolls-Royce models brought up the rear. Each costs about $11 a mile in overall energy costs

More Than Driving

The study clearly challenges industry's long-standing focus on fuel economy as the preeminent measure of energy efficiency. CNW says it looks at everything from the energy cost of smelting iron to the mileage that autoworkers rack up on their commute to work every day.

An earlier version of the study triggered a brawl in the media in 2007 by stating that hybrids consumed more energy per vehicle and per mile driven than some of the biggest gas-guzzlers on the road.

CNW says that had to do with a number of factors. For one thing, early production runs for the Prius and other hybrids were relatively small. So the cost of the energy to produce the technology and tooling was spread out over comparatively few units. Hence, the higher per-unit energy costs. Hybrids also pay an energy penalty by employing two powertrains, said CNW president Art Spinella.

If the early CNW findings are to be believed, a host of 2007 vehicles – including the Hummer H2 – actually consumed less energy per mile than hybrids over their total lifecycle, once you factored in each vehicle's energy consumption for design, development, manufacture and disposal.

As it turned out, there was more combustibility in those conclusions than one is likely to find in the most powerful turbocharged, direct injection engines today. Pundits like Rush Limbaugh and George Will seized on the findings, and then a host of bloggers and environmentalists poured scorn on them. As Slate magazine put it, CNW's conclusions were "lame scuttlebutt masquerading as science."

Hybrid Revenge

But now hybrids have moved up in the CNW rankings. The improvement is due in part to higher volumes that spread the energy costs over more vehicles, said Spinella, "So the costs overall for hybrids are starting to decline."

Spinella said hybrids are still handicapped by the fact that they have two powertrains, doubling the energy-related costs of engineering and manufacturing, not to mention the extra costs of assembly equipment and tooling. Even when it comes to fuel economy, the latest internal combustion engines are giving hybrids a run for their money.

"Hybrids are still more expensive overall than certain gas or diesel engines but at least the gap between the two has narrowed," he said.

Hybrid-drive versions of the Ford Escape ($2.21) and Toyota Camry ($2.85) scored in the middle of the pack. Non-hybrid versions of a model generally outperform hybrid versions on overall energy use, at least as CNW sees it.

Rest Of The Best

Improbable as it may seem, front-runners in the study's rankings also include the Ford Ranger and the Jeep Wrangler. They registered per-mile energy costs of just 60 and 69 cents respectively -- findings that could ignite a few brushfires of controversy in their own right this year.

While the Ranger gets a respectable 27 mpg on the highway, the Wrangler comes in at a low 19 mpg, a figure that would seemingly be at odds with having a low energy footprint. But Spinella said this is because the Wrangler relies on proven technology and doesn't require a lot of design resources. "You're simply talking about flat panels and flat glass," he said. "But there is nothing particularly complex about it except for four-wheel drive. And Jeep has been doing that for a very long time."

So has Ford with the current version of the Ranger, which has been in production since 1998.

Some of the leaders from two years ago improved their scores this year. For example, the Honda Fit went from 80 cents worth of energy per mile in 2008 to 69 cents for the 2010 model year. Similarly, the Toyota Corolla improved by nearly 5 percent in its overall energy use, falling from 75 to 71 cents per mile.

Armed with the CNW figures, you could probably win a bar bet or two. For example, Maseratis, at $3.22 a mile, score slightly better than Mercury Mariner Hybrids, at $3.57. Both are in the back of the pack, however. And the midsized Hyundai Sonata ($1.98) and the compact Subaru Impreza ($2.01) only score in the middle of the pack, despite having generally good fuel economy.

Can We Believe The Numbers?

Critics see the disconnect between fuel economy and overall energy use as a chink in the "Dust to Dust" armor. They argue that hybrids are a new technology and it's only natural for new technologies to cost more at the start -- in dollars as well as energy. They also dispute the standing of "Dust to Dust" as a scientific study, charging that little is known about its methods.

"The little supporting evidence that it has released suggests that the contentions in the report are, at best unproven and are likely wrong," wrote Peter H. Gleick, the executive director of the Pacific Institute, a non-profit research group, when the Hummer versus Prius furor first broke out in 2007.

The institute argues that actual driving accounts for about 90 percent of the energy use associated with a vehicle.

Further, the arrival of electric cars could practically end the debate. EV's will be lighter, and their propulsion simpler, so the energy use will be lower. They will have a single power source rather than the dual system of electric motor and gasoline engine. If electricity is ever generated cleanly -- still an iffy proposition -- the vehicles themselves will be clean as well.

"We are really looking at electrics surpassing both hybrids and gasoline, and probably diesel as well," Spinella said.

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