Calling BS on Hybrid Hype?

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A new generation of hybrid gas-electric and all-electric cars – including the 2011 Chevy Volt and Nissan Leaf – has arrived, with much hype attending their launch.

There is the promise of dramatic increases in fuel economy – but less mention of real-world downsides, including high purchase price and total operating costs.

Here’s a look at what’s on deck – including both the Good and the Bad:

* 2011 Chevrolet Volt –

Though technically a hybrid because it has both a gasoline engine and a battery pack/electric motor, it differs from current hybrids in that its gas-burning engine does not directly propel the vehicle at any time. Instead, the gas engine functions as a portable, onboard generator – providing electricity to power the car’s electric motor when the batteries run low. The battery pack and electric motors are what actually move the car down the road. The Volt also has “plug-in” capability, meaning its batteries can be charged up via common 110 Volt household outlets when it is parked, such as while you are at work or overnight at your home.

The Good: By carrying around its own charging source, the Volt won’t be dependent on fixed charging stations; nor will owners have to wait for hours while the battery recharges – two of the biggest practical/commercial problems with all previous electric-powered cars. The Volt’s small gasoline-burning engine is also extremely fuel-efficient, mainly because it doesn’t have to actually power the car directly. GM claims the Volt will be capable of “triple digit” fuel economy – perhaps as high as 230 miles per gallon, according to early press materials. Finally, the Volt is roughly about the same size as current Chevy Malibu sedan – so it will be suitable as a family car.

The Bad: Sticker price for the Volt is a sphincter-tightening $40,280 or about the same price as luxury sedans from BMW and Mercedes-Benz. Even with federal subsidies in the form of tax breaks equivalent to as much as $7,000, the up-front costs of the Volt are likely to be prohibitive to cost-conscious buyers. The Volt’s high purchase price will also take many years to amortize in the form of down-the-road savings on gasoline – unless the cost of fuel dramatically increases over the next few years.

Buyers should also keep in mind that the electricity used to power up the Volt’s batteries from 110 Volt plug-in outlets isn’t free. Recharging will increase consumers’ utility bills, though the actual amount will depend on how often the Volt is recharged this way – and also on whatever the kilowatt cost per hour of electricity happens to be in your area (and at that time of recharging).

* 2011 Nissan Leaf –

The Nissan Leaf is a 100 percent “pure” electric car, meaning it has no internal combustion engine of any kind, either to propel it or to power its batteries. It is propelled entirely by its electric motor, which in turn is powered by onboard batteries.

The Good: Owners will never have to worry about rising gas prices or filling up again. And because it has no internal combustion engine, the Volt qualifies as a Zero Emissions Vehicle (ZEV), entitling its owner to special privileges such as use of restricted roads in states such as California as well as federal (and possibly state) tax breaks.

Nissan says the Leaf has an “everyday average” range of around 100 miles on a full charge, which means it should be practical enough for daily use by most drivers. The hatchback sedan layout is practical and versatile. Nissan claims acceleration/performance will be comparable to a conventional V-6 powered family sedan.

The Bad: The Leaf requires special 220 Volt recharging stations. Unlike universal 110 Volt outlets, 220 Volt outlets are not yet common, which will impose a practical limit on the Leaf’s real-world range until such outlets are commonly available.

In addition, an actual 220 Volt charging station will be needed (as opposed to just the existing 110 Volt outlets already available in virtually every home and business). This will add another layer expense, especially if the home or business requires updates to its existing electrical service to accommodate the new 220 Volt line and recharging station.

The final negative is initial purchase price. Nissan hasn’t released final pricing information yet but has indicted that the Leaf will cost about as much as a “typical family sedan” – which implies an MSRP in the high teens/low $20k range. As with the Chevy Volt, it will probably take many years of driving to work off the higher up-front costs in the form of savings on fuel.

* 2011 Toyota Prius –

The “next generation” Prius is more or less the same as the current (2010) version, with one important difference: It offers factory-equipped plug-in capability so that owners can recharge its battery pack via any common 110 Volt household outlet. This will significantly increase the car’s ability to run on electric/battery power alone, as well as increase the maximum speed the 2011 Prius can be operated solely in electric mode. In the current Prius, the gasoline engine automatically kicks on at speeds of about 40 mph; in the plug-in Prius, it should be possible to operate the car at speeds of more than 40 mph in electric-only mode, making it possible to drive it on major secondary roads and possibly even highways without using the gasoline engine at all.

The Good: Of the three models under discussion, the plug-in Prius will be the most affordable in terms of up-front costs, with an expected starting price only about 10 percent higher the base price of the current (2010) Prius. It’s also proven technology. The Prius has been in production for more than 10 years and has an excellent track record as far as the reliability/durabilty of its hybrid components. The addition of plug-in capability will improve efficiency without requiring the buyer to take a gamble on potentially iffy, unproven technology. The Prius is also a roomy, comfortable car that can serve as a family’s primary vehicle.

The Bad: At the time of this writing there are unresolved questions about the Prius’ braking system and potential problems with unwanted acceleration. Both issues may be the result of some defect within the software that controls these systems.

Buyer concern about the safety of the Prius is very real and even when the problem is identified and fixed, the negative perception may affect resale values, including those of the 2011 plug-in model. Cost – both up-front and total operating cost – remains a question mark, too. The current (2010) Prius has a base price of $22,800 so if the estimates of the cost of the 2011 plug-in version (about 10 percent higher) are accurate, the base price of that model should be about $2,280 higher, or just over $25,000.

The additional $2,280 could buy about 844 gallons of gas at current prices (about $2.70 per gallon). In a standard (non-hybrid) economy car capable of averaging 35 miles per gallon, 844 gallons of fuel would propel the car about 30,000 miles, or the equivalent of three years’ worth of “free” driving. When you factor in the lower purchase price of a standard economy car, it might take 6-8 years of driving before you reached “break even” in a plug-in Prius.

The bottom line: These next generation hybrids boast amazing technology but the economics are murkier. Consumers should factor in total operating costs, not just the touted miles-per-gallon, before coming to any decision.


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