High times for hybrid?
Toyota has just had a record month in the US for Prius sales, with a fairly healthy 25,000 of the petrol-electric hybrids finding homes. Organic, rain-water-fed recycling homes, presumably. According to Bloomberg News, the sales record is primarily down to the price of petrol in the US spiking up towards $5.00 a gallon. Never mind that that works out about €1.02 a litre, that’s a high enough price to give US car buyers the heebie-jeebies and start heading for their nearest Toyota dealership.
With fuel prices not exactly being on the low side here in Europe, does that mean that hybrid technology, twenty years a-gestating, is finally to have its day in the sun? Will we all, in the next few years, be driving hybrids?
Hmmmm. Possibly not is the predictably chin-stroking answer. If hybrids did exactly what they said on the tin, then the answer would be almost certainly yes, but it’s just not that simple. Never is.
In the US market, despite the recent efforts of Volkswagen, diesel remains a very minor player. The only people filling up at diesel pumps in the US are those with Peterbilt or Kenworth keyrings and the odd geography teacher with an ancient W114 Mercedes diesel estate. And while that is all set to change over the next few years, for now, if you want a car that sucks less juice, you go for a hybrid.
In Europe, the picture is much more muddied. Here, diesel is currently king and nowhere more so than right here in Ireland. Once the Vehicle Registration Tax and motor tax setup was changed in 2008, from engine capacity to Co2, the Irish car market did an almost overnight flip from petrol to diesel. Where once around a third of the cars sold every year filled up from the black pump, now it’s less than a third that don’t.
And that puts hybrid in an awkward position. Why? Because of the difference between real world and claimed fuel economy. Toyota claims an official fuel economy figure of 3.9-litres per 100km for the Prius (running on 15” alloy wheels, you lose 0.1l/100km if you go for the 17” option). That’s 72mpg which is ludicrously impressive. And almost impossible to match. The last time I test drove a standard Prius, my average fuel economy for the week (including motorway runs, snarled-up city driving and ordinary main roads) worked out at 5.9-litres per 100km. And this is not just an issue for Toyota, it’s the case with pretty much every hybrid I’ve ever test driven. The systems perform beautifully in the closed-loop laboratory conditions of the official EU fuel economy tests, but in the real world, in real conditions, it’s much, much harder to make them stack up.
I do know, anecdotally, of Prius owners who claim to be able to match or even beat the official figures. How they are doing this is unknown. Whether this is something they can replicate on a daily basis is even less known.
Diesels, on the other hand, will often match their claimed figures in real world conditions, or at least get significantly closer to them than hybrids seem to be able to manage, and combined with the sort of punchy turbocharged performance that hybrids significantly lack, makes a good compact diesel a much more attractive solution to saving fuel.
So, QED, hybrids are for petrol-hungry Americans only and diesel remains king here, right?
Well, perhaps not. For a start, hybrids are becoming ever more common. A few short years ago, there were only two on the market; the Prius and the Honda Civic IMA. Now, the Prius family is growing to include the smaller Prius-C and the seven-seat Prius-Plus. All Lexus models, bar the compact IS saloon, have a hybrid version. Honda now has three hybrid models, PSA Peugeot Citroen’s clever 4wd diesel hybrid is just coming onto the market and pretty much everyone else from Ford to VW to Volvo has hybrid powertrains in the works.
Secondly, there does seem to be a steady groundswell of appreciation for hybrids, certainly among existing owners. Toyota, for one, is reporting steady repeat custom for its hybrid models, with Ian Corbett, marketing operations manager for Toyota Ireland saying “Apart from the obvious benefits of hybrid fuel economy and lower CO2 emissions hybrid owners much prefer the driving experience of a hybrid over a manual vehicle having experienced both.
“While the market is still predominantly a diesel market we have found that hybrid owners buy a hybrid again. In relation to Auris Hybrid, the customer feedback we have had from first time owners, which many of the Auris hybrid customers are, is overwhelmingly positive. Hybrid already accounts for 15% of our Auris sales, we have no doubt that as we introduce other hybrid models such as Yaris and Prius Plus seven seater, overall hybrid sales will continue to grow.”
That doesn’t quite tally with the figures that came just a few days later from US consumer analysts Polk. The researchers at Polk find that only around a third of hybrid buyers in the States go back for another hybrid afterwards, and that if you take the reliable repeat custom of the Toyota Prius out of that equation, the figure drops to below 25% going back for another one.
In fact, in spite of the high petrol prices currently blighting US forecourts as badly as our own (albeit at different levels), hybrids actually have a smaller market share now than they did in 2008. Buyers are still being put off by the fact that conventional cars appear to be able to give 90% of the economy benefits of a hybrid, yet are (generally) nicer to look at and drive.
You have to ask the question; why is the motoring world and its motoring dog constantly chasing the hybrid dream? Virtually every new car model set to launch in the next two years is expected to have a full hybrid, ‘mild’ hybrid or even plugin hybrid version. Given that the best diesels and petrols can now virtually equal hybrids for emissions and economy (at least if you take the real world figures) and given that pure electric cars are just a beefier battery away from mass acceptance, what place is there left for hybrid?
In many ways, one suspects that for an awful lot of car makers, hybrid is on the menu simply because of customer expectation and a need to be seen to be doing something with regards to lowering overall Co2 emissions. Never mind that a diesel or even petrol offering may actually be more efficient, the public has come to accept hybrid as the acceptable face of green motoring, so one must be offered.
Last year, I drove a prototype of the Prius plugin, and with just an 18km electric-only range, and my usual mix of driving, I was able to extract a reliable 4.1-litres per 100km from it. Fantastic. Of course, Toyota claims 2.1-litres per 100km. Some things never change…