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Hybrids Not Always The Best Answer For Fuel Economy

Hybrid vehicles that combine electric battery propulsion with a gasoline powered motor are supposed to be a huge part of the future. So, why did Nissan decide to kill off its Altima hybrid sedan earlier this year? That move came three years after Honda shelved its Accord Hybrid. The truth is that, despite the success of the Toyota Prius, hybrid technology has been applied badly to several vehicles. Define badly? The system can cost the automaker between $7,000 and $10,000 to install. That cost typically drives up the cost of the vehicle by thousands of dollars to the consumer without much gain at the pump.

Honda, for example, loaded the Accord Hybrid up with the costly technology, and in 2005 managed to get a 29 mpg average fuel economy. But that was later changed to just 25 mpg after Honda added the weight of a sunroof and spare tire. It was the top-priced Accord, and only got 3 miles more per gallon than the gas-powered V6 version, and just one mile more than the perfectly adequate and less expensive four-cylinder Accord that year.

Why do it? Why put these systems into heavy cars, trucks and SUVs when the impact on fuel economy can be so disappointing to the purchaser? The answer is part public relations and marketing, and part obstinance on the part of regulators resistant to making clean diesel more attractive to consumers.

The Volkswagen Touareg, for example, comes with a hybrid system for the princely sticker price of $60,565. The fuel economy is 20 mpg city/24 mpg highway. The clean diesel Touareg TDI starts at $47,950 with a lot of the same features and equipment, and gets 19 mpg city/28 mpg highway, a significant boost over the highway fuel economy of the gas version. It's true that clean diesel is often about 10%-15% costlier than gas, though the Touareg takes premium gas, so the price spread is actually smaller. The TDI is also a much gutsier engine with better performance and driving characteristics than the Hybrid.

Hybrid systems are just not very good at maximizing fuel economy on heavier vehicles and those apt to carry loads of people or cargo. The heavier the vehicle, the less the electric battery can support the load and propulsion of the vehicle.

What does make a lot of sense for trucks and SUVs are stop-start systems that shut down the truck's engine at stop-lights and at idle. The driver just steps on the gas pedal again and the vehicle goes on a dime. It's a terrific way to save gas and emissions. Also, a few pickup trucks, such as the Ram truck from Chrysler, have technology that shuts down half the cylinders in the engine when it is cruising on the highway, boosting fuel economy. That's a system that makes sense.

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Automakers have been convinced that there is a market of vehicle buyers who want to "greenwash" their SUV purchases by buying hybrid versions. The introduction of these vehicles also buys a bit of currency in Washington DC with the politicians and regulators who are given to criticizing automakers for not doing enough to build and promote more fuel efficient vehicles and pushing only gas-thirsty SUVs.

Because "hybrid" seems to still carry a lot of cachet with the public, General Motors is continuing to roll new hybrid vehicles out. And the latest technology, using lithium-ion batteries, shows that GM may have an edge in some ways over Toyota going forward.

Take the 2012 Buick LaCrosse with the new eAssist system. Using a new 2.4-liter, Ecotec 4-cylinder engine on the large sedan, combined with a lithium-ion battery that is regenerated with energy from the vehicle's brakes like most hybrids, the LaCrosse gets an estimated 36 miles per gallon on the highway and 25 mpg in the city. That represents a 20% improvement in highway mileage and a 32% boost in city mileage over the V-6 engine powered LaCrosse from past years.

The MRSP is $29,960 before an $860 destination charge, which is $2,000 more than the 2011 LaCrosse equipped with a 4-cylinder.

This is technology that works nicely in a large car. But the application in pickups and SUVs still doesn't work well given the weight and loads of these kinds of vehicles.

Diesel is the right choice for trucks and SUVs

Clean diesel is widely seen by auto companies and engineers as a more appropriate technology than hybrid systems to gain fuel economy for large sedans, pickups and SUVs. U.S. brands of pickup trucks already employ it. The Ford F Series, Dodge Ram and Chevy Silverado all have Super Duty and Heavy Duty versions with clean diesel engines that are better at towing heavy loads than their versions. Those vehicles get about 25% better fuel economy than the gas versions, and are workhorses, towing up to 24,000 pounds. But automakers like Ford and GM say the cost of the engine and system to makes sure tailpipe emissions meet Federal standards will make its light duty pickups too expensive. If there was a better tax credit for diesel vehicles and a gas tax to make diesel prices more even with that of regular gas, they would sell the light duty diesels in the U.S.

German automakers have reluctantly developed hybrids for cars and crossovers to satisfy public and U.S. governmental pressure to do so. They prefer to sell the clean diesel vehicles, which are quite popular in Europe, where clean diesel fuel is usually cheaper than gasoline because of the high level of taxes levies on gas. The European Union has actually structured the tax policy to favor clean diesel vehicles.

Volkswagen and Audi, both part of VW AG, have electric and hybrid vehicles on the way but they already market six diesels with more on the way. How do they stack up against hybrid cars? The VW Golf gets 34 mpg in combined driving and 42 mpg on highway, compared with 40 mpg combined for the Honda Civic Hybrid, which gets 43 mpg on the highway.

How do I decide which to buy...Hybrid or Diesel?

A big consideration in choosing a car--hybrid or diesel--is if your driving is mostly highway. Diesel is great for people who are in the highway a lot because the fuel economy really climbs on long hauls. If you are in stop-and-go commuting traffic in suburban New York City or Washington DC, a hybrid works better because mileage really climbs in traffic, and you can drive on a battery longer in stop-and-go traffic and at speeds under 45 mph. The Toyota Prius excels in heavy commuter traffic because the driver at slow speeds can stay on battery longer, and the battery gets re-charged frequently through the regenerative braking in the car.

But consumers have figured out that not all hybrids are terribly green, and they are passing them up.

Here are some of the hybrids that are simply not catching on with the pubic, and arguably should not have been built. On the bright-side, that means bargains on vehicles. Dicker hard with dealers.

BMW ActiveHybrid X6

MSRP: $88,900
Fuel Economy: 19 mpg highway, 17 mpg city

Why It Seems Pointless: Incredibly, the BMW ActiveHybrid X6 actually gets worse fuel economy than the standard X6. So not only are you being charged $20,000 more for the hybrid version, but you're not even getting what you are supposedly paying for. Sure, the ActiveHybrid has more horsepower, but that's not really why anyone would want to buy a hybrid in the first place.

BMW ActiveHybrid 750

MSRP: $102,300 - $106,200
Fuel Economy: 24 mpg highway, 17 mpg city

Why It Seems Pointless: You'd think that $100,000 for a hybrid would net you a little more than a measly 24 mpg on the highway. Considering you can get that exact fuel economy in a non-hybrid Hyundai Equus that contains top-of-the-line luxury amenities for $40,000 less, we can't understand why anyone would ever consider buying this.

Cadillac Escalade Hybrid

MSRP: $74,135 - $88,435
Fuel Economy: 23 mpg highway, 20 mpg city

Why It Seems Pointless: This is one of the biggest SUVs available and, thus, it takes a lot of fuel to get all of that weight moving. When you're dealing with all of this mass, adding a battery is simply not going to make much of a difference. The truth is in the numbers: The hybrid Escalade only sees a 5 mpg improvement on the highway over the standard version and costs about $10,000 more. Would you pay $2,000 per 1 mpg improvement? Didn't think so.

Chevrolet Silverado Hybrid

MSRP: $38,725 - $48,205
Fuel Economy: 23 mpg highway, 20 mpg city

Why It Seems Pointless: There is a substantial gain here over the regular 4WD Silverado, which, equipped with its 4.3L 6 cylinder engine, gets just 15 mpg combined city and highway driving. But the fact remains that it's starting price is almost $10K more than the gas-powered Silverado Crew-Cab. A clean diesel light-duty truck here would seem to be much more useful.

Chevrolet Tahoe Hybrid

MSRP: $51,145
Fuel Economy: 20 mpg city, 23 mpg highway

Why It Seems Pointless: Like the pickup truck, there is a gain in fuel economy over the gas version, which gets 15/21 for a combined 17 mpg. And sure it's about a 20% gain. But it's too pricey and not enough will ever be sold to make any societal dent in smog pollution.

Lexus LS 600h

MSRP: $112,250
Fuel Economy: 19 mpg city, 23 mpg highway

Why It Seems Pointless: Not only is this car more expensive than the BMW ActiveHybrd 750, it also actually nets a worse combined fuel economy. The BMW is one of the most pointless hybrids, but, incredibly, the $100,000 "green" machine actually makes more sense than this Lexus.

Mercedes-Benz M-Class Hybrid

MSRP: $55,790
Fuel Economy: 20 mpg city, 24 mpg highway

Why It Seems Pointless: This hybrid SUV actually isn't even the most efficient M-Class that Mercedes offers. The M-Class BlueTEC, which is powered by a 3.0-liter turbo-diesel V6, nets slightly better fuel economy and costs $5,000 less than the hybrid.

Porsche Cayenne Hybrid

MSRP: $67,700
Fuel Economy: 20 mpg city, 24 mpg highway

Why It Seems Pointless: From a cost-to-fuel-economy-improvement standpoint, the Cayenne Hybrid is another vehicle that simply doesn't make sense. The hybrid version of Porsche's performance SUV does get an mpg improvement over the base Cayenne (15 mpg city, 22 mpg highway), but costs about $20,000 more. Considering that over 5 years, you're only going to be saving a little over $2,000 in fuel costs, the cost-benefit ratio doesn't really work in the Cayenne Hybrid's favor. But, oh, how the folks at the country-club will think you are green!

Volkswagen Touareg Hybrid

MSRP: $60,565
Fuel Economy: 20 mpg city, 24 mpg highway

Why It Seems Pointless: The Touareg Hybrid suffers from the same flaw as the M-Class Hybrid. Volkswagen offers the much more affordable Touareg TDI, which is overall gets much better fuel economy at 19 mpg city, 28 mpg highway. Considering that the Touareg TDI costs about $13,000 less than the hybrid, the sensible option is very clear.

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The Savings of Hybrids Cars vs. Gas Engine Cars

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