Not all hybrids are created equal.
The Union of Concerned Scientists (UCS) released this year’s Hybrid Scorecard earlier this month, evaluating 34 hybrids for their fuel efficiency, consumer value and environmental improvement over conventional cars.
According to Don Anair, senior UCS engineer and the scorecard’s author, nine of the 10 top-selling hybrids from January to April get more than 30 miles per gallon and score above average for environmental improvement and value.
The good, the bad and the “hollow”
The Toyota Prius ranked No. 1 in the scorecard’s environmental improvement category among non-luxury vehicles, releasing over 40 percent fewer emissions that contribute to smog and global warming than its non-hybrid counterparts. Other non-luxury vehicles scoring high in this category included the Ford Fusion Hybrid, Honda Civic Hybrid and Toyota Highlander Hybrid.
Among luxury vehicles, the Lincoln MKZ Hybrid and Lexus CT200h nabbed the top two scores for environmental improvement. By downsizing the vehicles’ engines from six to four cylinders, Ford and Lexus were able to cut the emissions from these hybrids by over 40 percent, as compared to similar non-hybrid models.
The scorecard also reports that “hollow” hybrids with little environmental benefit, such as the 2009 Saturn Aura and the 2010 Chevy Malibu hybrids, are fading from the market. Rather than being true hybrid cars, these vehicles offered start/stop systems that turned off the engine when the vehicle came to a stop, Anair says.
But there is some bad news: Only 13 of the 34 hybrids evaluated reduced their emissions by at least 25 percent compared to their closest conventional counterparts, Anair says.
Many of these polluting vehicles are “muscle” hybrids that emphasize power over fuel efficiency or value. In these “muscle” hybrids, automakers will use the hybrid’s electric motor to boost power rather than increase efficiency or fail to replace the typical gas engine with a smaller or more efficient one, Anair says.
While the Porsche Cayenne Hybrid and BMW’s X6 and 750i ActiveHybrids scored the lowest for environmental improvement among luxury vehicles, the non-luxury Volkswagen Touareg Hybrid received an all-time low score, emitting only 10 percent fewer pollutants than standard models.
“Automakers are still producing hybrids that fail to deliver on the technology’s potential to dramatically improve fuel economy,” Anair says. “Their focus on maximizing power over consumer value risks the future of hybrid technology.”
The scorecard also reviews a hybrid’s “forced features” – premium sound systems or heated seats that come standard in some hybrid models – which can artificially inflate the cost of the vehicle, without increasing its fuel efficiency or reducing its emissions. These additional features can add an average of $2,500 to the hybrid’s base price, hiding the true value of hybrid technology and deterring cost-conscious shoppers from purchasing a hybrid.
“If automakers are serious about selling hybrids and offering fuel efficiency at a fair price, they should ditch forced features,” Anair says. He notes that there should be more models with few or no forced features – like the Hyundai Sonata, a non-luxury hybrid, and the Lincoln MKZ, a luxury vehicle.
Absent from the Hybrid Scorecard was Chevy’s plug-in hybrid, the Volt, due to a variety of factors like electricity sources and driving habits that complicate calculating the car’s environmental performance. However, the UCS is currently developing a tool to help consumers evaluate the Chevy Volt and other plug-in vehicles.
The future of hybrids
The UCS hopes the fact that the best-selling hybrids have the scorecard’s highest environmental and value ratings will send a strong signal to automakers to focus on maximizing fuel efficiency at a fair price, without loading on forced features.
But the group thinks that only legislation can guarantee automakers will develop the most efficient and cost-effective hybrids. The Obama administration is currently negotiating clean car standards for new vehicles and light trucks built between 2017 and 2025, and the UCS recommends that the new fuel economy standards require at least 60 mpg.
“Strong clean car standards would ensure that automakers make the most of hybrid technology to boost fuel economy and cut emissions,” he says.
If you’re shopping around for a car and considering purchasing a hybrid, Anair offers his advice.
“No. 1 is to buy the most efficient vehicle that meets your needs,” he says. “In other words, look for the highest mpg. Look at the scorecard to see how much you might be forced to pay for extra features and how the hybrid compares to its non-hybrid counterpart.”