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  • irishtimes.com - Posted: April 13, 2012 @ 7:37 am

    High times for hybrid?

    Neil Briscoe

    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…

    • peejay says:

      I’ve been looking into this very carefully as I want my next car purchase to be as environmentally friendly as possible.

      Various things to take issue with in the article:
      - diesels match or get significantly closer to the claimed figures? Match: no. Closer to? A bit, but not significantly. Honest John’s database of “real world” figures shows a Prius achieving 79% of the claimed MPG, with a Golf Bluemotion achieving 87%. Fairly similar. And that’s MPG. If you do the sums for CO2, the Prius beats it, even in the “real world”.
      - “real world” data is suspect, too. We have no idea on the samples of cars providing these data. Actually, we can guess. Prius owners are more likely to be urban, meaning that the sample will be biased towards urban traffic, which means the Prius “real world” figure appears worse than it would if the sample were correctly weighted.
      - diesel cars put out a whole lot of other nasty pollutants, which make local air quality much worse.
      - diesel cars have particulate filters which clog up unless you do enough non-urban driving. Not much use for city dwellers.

      So there are many reasons why a hybrid can make sense, especially in urban environments.

      Lastly, the Prius plug-in figures you quote… I agree they are nonsense. Figures for plug-ins are entirely dependent on how much driving you do only using the battery. If you only use a car for commuting, you might never need to fill up, which would result in infinite “real world” MPG! But to be fair to Toyota, they are legally obliged to quote the official figures, and legally prevented from quoting any other figures. So there’s a problem with the official fuel consumption methodology for plug-in (or range extending) vehicles. But again, depending on usage type, they have the potential to be very good indeed.

    • Neil Briscoe says:

      Hi peejay,

      A couple of things caught my eye in your comments. Yes, diesels do emit more pollutants, unless they are fitted with a particle filter. Now, these filters have issues of their own regarding reliability and warranty coverage, but one has to take into account that the processes involved in creating the batteries used by hybrids and electric vehicles have environmental issues of their own.

      Secondly, you say that ‘real world’ data is suspect, and in a strictly scientific sense you are correct. The only way to fairly compare and contrast fuel economy figures is to take the official figures because they are measured under identical conditions for every vehicle. The issue with hybrids is that, with a full battery charge, they are given an unfair and unrealistic advantage because the official fuel economy test only lasts for a few minutes. In the ‘real world’ their advantage is fleeting at best, unless you dramatically adjust your driving style.

      Where diesels are concerned, you can often do better than the official figures if you drive carefully, at least in my experience. As an example, the figures I gave for the Prius’ fuel consumption above where recorded during my time with the vehicle (surely the only ‘real world’ figures I can reasonably rely on). Equally, during my time with the Volkswagen Golf BlueMotion, I managed to average significantly better economy, on the same mix of motorway, city and main road driving. Even better again, I recently tested the new BMW 520d Efficient Dynamics model and recorded getting on for 60mpg over 1,200km of driving, most of which was done four-up with a boot full of luggage. Real world figures indeed.

      Getting more realistic fuel consumption figures would be a good thing, and it’s something we’ve covered on the Irish Times Motors Podcast, but the side issue to that is that Co2 figures would then be skewed, and we would all end up having to pay higher rates of tax. It all depends which you prioritise more…

    • peejay says:


      Thanks for your response. Good to have a discussion!

      As for diesel pollutants, the latest Euro V standards, complete with DPFs, do have lower pollutants than before, but it’s not reduced to zero by any means, and it’s still worse than petrol.

      For me – and I live in London, so my experience is NOT typical! – the DPF is a deal breaker. By my calculations I would need to make special journeys, multiple times a year, just to trigger the active regeneration to clear the filter. And finding a road fast enough, for long enough, would take me about an hour’s round trip. So that’s wasted fuel and CO2 just to perform the regen. And of course the regen burns the soot caught into the filter and turns it into CO2! Although, as I’ve said, most people don’t live in London, so passive regeneration may be sufficent, which would mean that wouldn’t notice it happening.

      I think the idea that hybrid batteries are bad for the environment is a bit of a myth. They’re recycled at the end of life of the car.

      I think it’s more than in a strict scientific sense that “real world” data is likely to be suspect. In an actual, real sense the samples are likely to be biased, and we can do maths to work out how those biases are likely to impact on the figures.

      We’re stuck with imperfect information. The official figures are comparable, but have shortcomings. Websites with collated “real world” figures will tend to have biased samples. And as for individual reviews or reports on vehicles – well, you got some relatively poor fuel economy figures on your Prius test – but that’s just one data point. There are some reports where fuel economy has been tested in a slightly more scientific manner – following predefined routes and speeds and comparing different cars. But even then, comparisons between cars would only work if other factors – such as the weather! – were the same for all tests!

      I will agree that the distances covered by the official tests are too short, and this will tend to exaggerate a hybrid’s performance in urban areas. But I’m not going to agree with your assertion that their advantage is fleeting at best.

      I focus particuarly on CO2 because that’s what’s important for climate change, rather than MPG. They’re different, because there’s about 11% more energy per gallon of diesel than petrol. So it’s perfectly possible for a diesel car to get better MPG than a petrol, but have worse CO2.

      It’s encouraging to hear of your “real” real world performance of diesels. Any contribution to reducing CO2 emissions is helpful, and I know that currently hybrids are not priced in a mainstream fashion. (Although the forthcoming Yaris hybrid might help… it costs the same as the Polo Bluemotion, and significantly bests it on CO2… according to the official figures!)

      One small note on fuel consumption with a fully loaded car, though. I think (although happy to be corrected) that this impacts mostly on stop-start driving, where you’re having to accelerate the additional mass repeatedly. When driving at constant speeds, I don’t think this is much of an issue. At high speed, by far the most significant factor is wind resistance, which increases at the square of the speed.

    • JOD says:

      Good karma here: http://www.fiskerautomotive.com/en-us
      Beautiful hybrid 50 miles range electric plus 300 additional with 2 l turbo GM Ecotec petrol engine w/260bhp. Solar panels in the roof and zer to 380 gm emissions. Top speed’s limited to 125 mph 0-60 6.3 secs. Looks like a cross between a Z4 and an XK-R but almost better looking than either.

    • Bren says:

      yeh but they look horrible and Toyotas in general are boring to drive but I guess that doesnt bother the tree huggers

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