Hybrid Cars Becoming Less Attractive as Horsepower Is Increased and Fuel Economy Decreased?
First, the article that let everyone know what the Auto Companies are up to. Then, the latest response as government and the private sector increase the incentives for hybrids.
Hybrid Cars Burning Gas in the Drive for Power
By MATTHEW L. WALD
WASHINGTON, July 16 - Mark Buford is happy with the Honda Accord hybrid that he bought six months ago, and he has already driven it 13,000 miles. He was determined to buy a hybrid electric car, he said, and this one is clean, "green" and accelerates faster than the nonhybrid version. He just cannot count on it to save much gasoline.
Many people concerned with oil consumption, including President Bush and members of Congress, are pointing to hybrids - vehicles with electric motors as well as internal combustion engines - as a way to reduce fuel use and dependence on imported oil. The first ones to reach the market did that; the two-seat Honda Insight, introduced in December 1999, was rated at 70 miles per gallon, and it was followed by the five-seat Toyota Prius, also built for reduced fuel consumption. Those cars have no nonhybrid equivalents. Then came the Civic hybrid, designed to perform almost as well as the original, only using a lot less gasoline.
But the pendulum has swung. The 2005 Honda Accord hybrid gets about the same miles per gallon as the basic four-cylinder model, according to a review by Consumer Reports, a car-buyer's guide, and it saves only about two miles a gallon compared with the V-6 model on which it is based. Thanks to the hybrid technology, though, it accelerates better.
Hybrid technology, it seems, is being used in much the same way as earlier under-the-hood innovations that increased gasoline efficiency: to satisfy the American appetite for acceleration and bulk.
Despite the use of hybrids to achieve better performance with about the same fuel economy, consumers who buy the cars continue to get a tax credit that the Internal Revenue Service allows under a "clean fuels" program that does not take fuel savings into account.
And the image of hybrids as fuel-stingy workhorses persists. In a June 15 speech at an energy forum, Mr. Bush proposed a tax credit of up to $4,000 to "encourage people to make right choices in the marketplace that will make us less dependent on foreign sources of oil and to help improve our environment."
But some hybrids save hardly any fuel, energy efficiency advocates say. "The new ones are all being used for power," said Kateri Callahan, the president of the Alliance to Save Energy, a nonprofit advocacy group based here. Hybrids should be encouraged, Ms. Callahan said, because their electric components some day could be useful in an all-electric car, perhaps running on a fuel cell. But she added that the government should be careful about which hybrids it subsidizes through tax benefits. Now, she said, the car companies are "building to the high-end market. They think people want performance."
The same thing happened at Amtrak. Everybody got all wrapped around the axle with ideas that we're going to leap into the 21st Century with TGVs [a reference to France's high-speed trains, known by their initials 'TGV' for 'Train of Great Velocity'] and high-speed corridors all over the United States. Meanwhile, we weren't putting in any new rails on existing lines. We weren't overhauling cars. There was a total disconnect in terms of where this place was headed, between the nuts and bolts, and what the rail proponents focused on. To some extent, I'm being critical of the rail proponents, because they have this idea that the nuts and bolts will take care of themselves. And that is wrong.
The companies may have sized up their customers pretty well. Mr. Buford, for example, bought his Accord hybrid in January, a month after the model came out, replacing a 2001 Accord coupe.
Mr. Buford, a telecommunications analyst at Kraft Foods who works in the Chicago area, said he decided on a hybrid because he wanted to "go green," although he added, "I wasn't willing to make any of the trade-offs normally associated with a hybrid." He said he liked the way that the electric motor on his new car kicked in early during acceleration, at a speed range in which the V-6 gasoline engine is relatively weak. And its emissions of smog-forming pollutants are low, he said. (The Environmental Protection Agency puts the hybrid and nonhybrid Accords in the same emissions
If sold at list price, the hybrid costs about $3,300 more than the V-6 with no hybrid. Mr. Buford said he was not sure if the gas savings would ever pay for the difference. But in that price range - about $30,000 - many buyers are not looking for a car that is the cheapest to buy or to operate.
Mr. Buford said he expected that when he files his taxes next April, the purchase will cut his tax bill by about $600. The tax credit will begin to be phased out in 2006.
The Accord hybrid is not alone in using technology for power; the Toyota Highlander and the Lexus RX330, two premium vehicles, both gained horsepower when they were produced as hybrids. When Lexus created a hybrid version of the RX330 it kept the same 3.3-liter engine, but to get across the idea that the hybrid had as much power as a vehicle with a 4-liter engine it named it the RX400h.
In the Accord, the mechanism was simple. Honda took the model with the 3.0-liter V-6 engine, which generates 240 horsepower, and added a 16-horsepower electric system. That is in contrast to the Civic, in which Honda pulled out the standard 1.7-liter engine and replaced it with a 1.3-liter engine when it made a hybrid version of the car. Combined with the electric drive, the car's horsepower remained roughly constant.
Consumer Reports called the hybrid portion of the Accord a "green turbocharger." The main benefit is in getting from zero to 60 miles per hour in 6.9 seconds, compared with 9.0 seconds for the basic four-cylinder model. A Honda spokesman, Andrew Boyd, said the company already had hybrids that minimize fuel use, notably the Insight, for customers whose top priority was to save gasoline, and the Civic for customers who wanted a car that performs the same but uses less fuel. Performance in the Civic hybrid is slightly lower than the original model, Mr. Boyd said, and as a result it gets 36 miles per gallon instead of 29.
Mr. Boyd said the Accord split the benefit between fuel economy and performance. He did not describe its selling point as the ability to save gas, but "the appeal of a hybrid."
"The closer you get to the mainstream buyer, fuel economy is still part of the equation, but a smaller part," he said. "In the Accord, people will pay all kinds of money for more performance. We can deliver that performance, but in addition, with better fuel economy."
Hybrid technology seems to be heading the way of earlier technologies, which got more work out of a gallon of gasoline, like four valves per cylinder and variable valve timing, that have been used in the end to make cars accelerate faster, rather than to hold them steady in performance and to cut fuel consumption.
Daniel A. Lashof, a car expert at the Natural Resources Defense Council, said, "The horsepower wars have really gotten out of control in the last few years."
Acceleration is one indication of horsepower. According to the E.P.A., the average new vehicle accelerates from zero to 60 m.p.h. in under 10 seconds, down from 14 seconds in the early 1980's. The average weight has increased by about 750 pounds in the same period. If cars in the 2004 model year had the same weight and acceleration as cars did in 1987, according to the agency, they would get 20 percent better gas mileage.
Consumer Reports, in an article published in May, found that in actual on-the-road conditions the Accord hybrid averaged 25 m.p.g., versus 24 m.p.g. for the 4-cylinder model and 23 m.p.g. for the nonhybrid V-6. The E.P.A. figures show a larger benefit for the hybrid, but the agency's fuel economy figures are considered by many to be inaccurate because they do not reflect the way cars are actually driven.
And the problem is that every time you start talking about the bigger stuff, everybody assumes that you've taken care of nuts and bolts. It can't be an either/or, which is generally what's happening.
The two-miles-per-gallon increase over the V-6, about 8 percent, is still significant, and federal tax rules, which are based on cost and not mileage benefit achieved, still give an Accord hybrid buyer a substantial subsidy. But 8 percent is not in the range that would make a substantial dent in American oil consumption. If every car in the country were converted to a hybrid with that improved mileage, the gain would be swallowed up in three to four years by growth in driving demand.
Mr. Buford said he got just what he wanted from the Accord, a hybrid with no sacrifices. "I wasn't prepared to give up anything to 'go green' - not performance, amenities, or space," he said.
Copyright 2005 The New York Times Company