Suing Honda . . . Watch Out, GM!

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Heather Peters (no relation to this writer) is hopping mad at Honda. She says her ’06 hybrid Civic’s actual mileage more than just varied: About 30 MPG vs. the EPA (and Honda) advertised 50 MPG. So she’s going after Honda in court – small claims court – for $10,000. Which is  the maximum payday she can get there. Honda is concerned because if Peters wins, other hybrid owners may use the same tactic – and $10,000 times all the potentially unhappy Civic hybrid owners out there, of which there are hundreds of thousands, could add up to a lot more than $10,000 in no time at all.

Peters, a lawyer, estimates it could potentially add up to as much as $2 billion.

“I would not be surprised if she won,” Richard Cupp Jr., a product liability law professor at Pepperdine University, told the Associated Press. “The judge will have a lot of discretion and the evidentiary standards are relaxed in small claims court.”

So, Honda should be worried. In fact, so should every car company that’s ever sold a hybrid vehicle – because few, if any of them, deliver the promised fuel economy.

Often, they deliver much less.

But it’s not really the cars’ fault. Because they are capable of delivering the advertised mileage. Theoretically. The problem is that you have to drive them in a way that, for most people, is not only unrealistic but downright impossible.

To get a steady 40 MPG (let alone 50 MPG) out of any hybrid – and I have driven all of them, extensively – you must keep your speed under 50 MPH and treat the accelerator as if it were a Faberge egg. This is enervating if you have any consideration for your fellow drivers – whose progress you will be constantly impeding – as well as downright dangerous for you. Merge lanes become suicide lanes; semis loom large in the rearview; you can feel the Hate all around you. So, you give it some pedal – and poof! – there goes your 50 MPG.

There are also hills.

Hybrids work best on the perfectly horizontal plane. Once rolling, it takes not much power to keep on rolling – and many hybrids can actually shut down the gas engine side of their hybrid powertrain entirely as you coast along.

But alas, the world is not – usually – flat.

Where I live, for instance, there are 6-8 percent grades. These grades pummel the MPG potential of hybrids as they struggle uphill, burning gas abundantly and also at the same time rapidly depleting the electricity stored in their battery packs, which in a hybrid is used  to provide a supplemental boost when needed as well as to allow the car to operate on electricity alone.

And once the batteries are depleted, the car can no longer shut down its gas engine even when the road is flat once more –  because there’s insufficient reserve power to run the electric motor. You can almost see the tongue of exhaustion hanging out of the car’s grille.

I had a “state of the art” Chevy Volt recently and this is exactly what happened. Going up and down the mountain rapidly sucked the life out of the battery and so I was running exclusively on the gas engine – which never did better than 35 MPG. This is about 5 MPG worse than several non-hybrid 2012 cars, including the Mazda3 SkyActive and Ford Fiesta – cars that, it should be noted, cost  about half what a new Volt costs.

GM better lawyer up, too.

Even when you get back to flat land, because the battery was depleted dealing with hills (or helping to provide adequate acceleration) the hybrid just becomes a heavier-than-usual (because of the added weight of the battery pack and electric motor) car burning gas just like any other car. And usually, more gas than an otherwise equivalent non-hybrid car – for two reasons:

* In a hybrid, the gas engine is usually smaller and less powerful than the engine in an otherwise equivalent non-hybrid. For instance, in Peters’ 2006 Civic hybrid, the gas engine is  just 1.3 liters and makes only 110 hp. In the non-hybrid Civic, the engine is 1.8 liters and makes 140 hp. Result? The hybrid’s smaller/weaker engine has to work harder to deliver comparable forward thrust – which means it burns more fuel.

* In a hybrid, the gas engine has two jobs – powering the drive wheels and powering up the battery pack. There is no free lunch in physics. If the battery is strained and drained repeatedly, it puts additional load on the engine – just like any other accessory. Which – wait for it, now – results in more fuel being burned.

Honda’s sin – the sin of all car companies hawking hybrids – was (and still is) not making all this clear to its customers. Hybrids can indeed return 40 or even 50-plus MPGs. The problem is finding a place where you can drive them in such a way as to make that real-world feasible rather than pie-in-the-sky advertising copy.

Throw it in the Woods?

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  1. I take issue with losing gas mileage over hills. I have a Ford Fusion hybrid(2010) that has overall averaged 40mpg since I bought it. This includes both city and highway driving, maybe 1/3 city and 2/3 highway. When I go to town and over the mountain(a change in elevation about 700 feet) I gain back almost all of the lost mpg from going up over the mountain.

    • Hi Kurt,

      I’m just reporting what I experienced; there are so many variables (we all drive differently, etc.) that it really does come down to your mileage will vary.

  2. wow what a lot of misinformation. Honda had a total case that the numbers weren’t theirs, but the governments. so why did they lose the case? I drove a truck (955 Cummins) and there was a torque peak, a fuel efficiency peak, and a horsepower peak. the Manufacturer had worked all that out on a dyno, so all I had to do was keep it where it needed to be, and get it there in an appropriate fashion, which meant, not all day, and not totally on the floor. This is not rocket science, but it evidently has escaped most of you

    • What “misinformation”? Are the facts as presented correct – or not?

      The problem is that while Honda (and other automakers) do use the figures provided they government they are not obligated to tout them as definitive. Honda could have – and should have, in my opinion – included a fact sheet with its hybrids explaining that while they can get “x” mileage if driven this way, if you drive them that way it is probable your mileage will be considerably less than the government figures indicate.

      Of course, consumers ought to self-educate. But that’s often asking too much these days, unfortunately.

  3. Eric–

    In 2006 my wife bought a Honda Accord Hybrid; I wanted a Prius but she desired the roominess, leather seats and power. Cost about $32,000. The car has held up very well, and its Integrated Motor Assist (IMA) allows it to get better mileage at top speeds than at lower ones. But 37-38 mpg is about the best we can get, and, as you say, if we babied the car it might do a little better. Overall I think it gets around 32-33.

    I have held onto a Honda Accord 1991 and occasionally “hyper-mile” it. (Did some figures and determined I could get up to 28 mpg, safely), or about 10-20% better than rated performance. It makes little sense to buy a new car when an old one well taken care of can get that kind of mileage, and has good dependability. I see no reason to buy an electric, unless its a small car like the EV1, and I still wonder why GM or another mfg can’t supply that. It makes sense as a second car even with limited range of 50-75 miles. Every once in a while I see a Honda Insight (original) and I lick my chops–I’d buy it in heartbeat, and agree with your assessment that it makes the most sense (cents).
    I believe it came out before the Prius–why do manufacturers abandon good designs (even the Accord Hybrid is no longer being made).

    • Hi Bill,


      The original Honda Insight was in my opinion the only hybrid that made economic sense – because it was/is the only hybrid that significantly outperformed the fuel efficiency of the best economy cars. At 70 MPG – which it could do (and 50-60 routinely) the math works out. At mid-high 30s (best case) and around 32-33 routinely it takes much longer for it to work out – if it ever does.

  4. I wonder how many of these Prius owners are believing the computer display of their mileage instead of actual calculator computations of mileage driven per gallons used? I’ve watched Prius drivers loafing off the stop lights and looking at their computer display instead of the road. You don’t actually think that Toyota is telling you what’s actually occuring with gas consumption in that over-priced green machine, do you?

    I consistently have kept cars well over 10 years and to keep a hybrid that long would most likely entail a costly battery replacement. Not worth it compared to conventional cars.

  5. Hybrids do not get you better mileage onthe highway thann an identical car without the batteries and motors. Full hybrids (like the Prius) actually can get better MPG in city driving than on the highway. I know it is coutner-intuitive. My parents have an ’09 Prius. They average 45-50mpg and my dad has a lead foot. They have had a few tanks above 50 mpg. During cold weather and/or short trips where the engine barealy gets warmed up, mileage will be lower.
    If you do mostly highway driving, buy a migh-mpg non-hybrid car. If you do a lot of city or stop & go rush hour driving a hybrid will save you gas.
    The EPA has to keep dumbing down the mileage ratings because msot people have no clue how to drive to achieve decent gas mileage. Even under the old (pre-2008) ratings I never owned a car that couldn’t exceed its highway rating if driven on a long highway trip with few stops (5-10mph over the limit).
    That being said the EPA ratings are very useful for comparing relative mpg differences between various models. If you can’t achieve the rated mpg in a hybrid, you probably aren’t going to with a non-hybrid either.
    They key to good highway mpg car designs is taller gear ratios (lower rpms). My 90 Dodge with 3.3L V6 got 35 mpg on the highway because it only did 1800 revs per mile. My ’95 Maxima (3.0 L)couldn’t break 28 mpg on the highway (even when babied) because it turned 2400 revs per mile.

  6. I don’t see how she can win. The government MANDATES the procedure for measuring mpg, and the companies CANNOT use any other value (higher or lower).

    Unless there can be proven fraud in Honda’s testing, or proven significant variance in the production vehicles, it is out of their hands.

  7. The design concept of hybrids is wrong – engines should be a quarter to a third of the size of current models. I and another man ran the Australian EPA car testing dynamometer for regulation enforcement and research during 1980-89. As Chairman of the National committee I chose 91octane for the unleaded petrol introduced in Australia in 1985. 2 years ago I was horrified in driving a Toyota Prius Hybrid to discover that it had (memory?) a 2.6litre petrol engine (which is heavy) PLUS the weight of the electric motors PLUS the weight of a FEW batteries. Consider the basic physics – the average power demand during the drive cycles that we used on the dynamometer was rather low compared to the maximum power of the engines – I think (by memory?) the average power on the urban cycle was only 12%, and on the highway cycle was only 19%; my memory could be faulty but the logic is the same. Back in the 1980s we thought that hybrid cars should have an engine ONE QUARTER the size of the normal petrol or diesel engine, e.g. 650cc for the Toyota Prius – and for best optimised fuel economy and low emissions it operates at only one condition = flat out or OFF. Such a small engine could fit in a corner somewhere, leaving space and weight for lots of batteries and the electric motors.

    • Hi Lex,


      The only hybrid I’ve ever been able to recommend – if the object is to save money – is the original (circa 2000) Honda Insight. It had (if memory serves) a 1 liter engine and was capable of 60-plus MPG. It weighed less than 2,000 lbs.,of course.

      Granted, it was a two-seater, but there’s no reason a hybrid sedan needs to weigh 3,000-plus lbs. as the current Prius does.

      Well, there is a reason (but not a need): People want power/performance and luxury amenities, too – all of which adds weight and cuts down on mileage. Then there are the governments various mandates, including the air bag mandate, which also adds weight (as well as expense).

      We could easily have 60 MPG vehicles – without even having to resort to hybrid technology. The thing is, mos people don’t really want them – and the government makes it really hard to build them.

  8. I’ll keep my ’99 VW Jetta turbo diesel. Just 90 hp and 48-50 mpg. She cruises comfortably at 80 mph. Left Maine (full), only 2 more fills to arrive in Tampa, FL

    • Hi Peter,

      Great car. I wish they still made cars like this. Here we are, 12 years later, and the current Jetta TDI only rates 42 (highway). Part of the reason is the weight of the ’12 Jetta (3,161 lbs.). The other is the idiotic lust for power/performance (which few can or will use) which kills the economy potential. The new Jetta can easily do 130 and accelerate to 60 in less than 8 seconds. All of which is nice except American drivers don’t/can’t/won’t go even 100 MPH and typically creep away from red lights and accelerate like Clovers. They’d be fine with a car that maybe needed 10 seconds to reach 60 and had a top speed of “only” 110 MPH… but which also returned 55-plus MPG.

      • I would be fine with 0-60mph acceleration of about 15sec. Only if I really need to gun it is a faster acceleration time needed.

        The 2001 Golf TDI was great for day to day driving that I did. Not super fast 0-60 times, but it was fast enough for my needs. On the hwy, cruising at 3,000 rpms would have me @ 84 mph. (28mph / 1,000rpm)

        I would get consistent 48-52 mpg from my driving experience, (Your Millage May Vary).

        I am interested in high mpg vehicles that meet my needs and are inexpensive as well. The Saturn SC2 was a good car(35mpg hwy), although the leg room was about 1-2 inches shorter that I prefer as a driver.

        • Yup!

          And the reality (at least in my area) is that even when I am driving my four cylinder truck, I’m still moving faster than two-thirds of the other traffic, including cars with twice the cylinders and 2-3 times the power.

          Don’t misunderstand me. I love quick/powerful cars. But it irritates me to see all these quick/powerful cars just piddling along. Their drivers would be just fine with a circa 1985 Taurus. Even that had more power/speed than these people ever seem to use.

  9. Perhaps some of these hi mileage folks are being pranked.
    We had an engineer at N. American back in the 60’s when the beetles were becoming popular – I had a 59 and have a 68 now. Anyway he started raving about the great mpg he was getting to the point of being obnoxious. So at lunch time we would go out and gradually add gas to the tank. Eventually even he was amazed at the fantastic performance. After a while we started going out and removing gas a little at a time slowly increasing the amount withdrawn each time. Now the dialog became a little more subdued. He never figured it out and we never told him.
    Used to get 40 mpg on my 59 1300cc and I drove the hell out of it.
    I don’t see any Priuses passing me on the fwy & they can also use the carpool lane. The folks I know don’t get that great a mileage and when they need repairs they about pass out. After the wty expires even minor electrical problems become big problems as everything is electrical/computerized.

    • Hey Bill,

      Great story! I’ve also owned several old Beetles and your points relative to the Prius are spot on. No, an old Beetle won’t get 50 MPG, but neither will a Prius in most real-world driving conditions. High 30s/low 40s has been my experience. That’s good, but not staggeringly good. About 10 MPG better than several 2012 non-hybrid compact sedans deliver – and those non-hybrids cost thousands less to buy, negating the cost-savings at the pump that the hybrid offers. Maybe after five or six years you reach a point of “break even” and then the hybrid actually begins to save you some money. But that is a long time to wait for returns.

      And as you note, the Prius, unlike the Beetle (as well as current non-hybrids) is a fantastically complex machine and when a problem develops, god help you. With those old Beetles, problems would crop up, too. And sooner and more frequently,I’ll readily admit. But those problems were invariably simple to deal with and cheap, too. Heck, eve a complete engine tear down/rebuild was not that big a deal. I haven’t had a Beetle since the ’90s, but I doubt the cost of a set of new pistons/rings/bearings/gaskets, etc. has gone up all that much and back then it was a couple hundred bucks for all that.

  10. Have driven 2 Ford Escape hybrids and can tell you that with the Ford system it is exactly like the author says….if you drive to get the claimed mileage you will be shot or run off the road. Any speed over 55 results in a huge decrease and any hilly driving kills the supposed efficiency. You Prius drivers must have exceptional driving skills and get the best of the best cars to drive.

    • I suspect they’re Clovers… they say they drive 70 (even 80) but if they really do that for any length of time, forget 45 MPG or even 40 MPG. At those speeds, the car is working purely on the (not very efficient) gas side of the hybrid powertrain and working hard.

      But the bigger issue is acceleration. If you aren’t a Clover – meaning, you don’t limp away from lights and build speed grrrrradddually – there goes your mileage. Again.

      I’ve long said you’re much better off driving a standard (non-hybrid) compact that gets 30-ish MPG but costs many thousands less than the Prius.

      You typically have to drive for at least 5-6 years before you reach break-even (with a Prius) relative to a $15k non-hybrid. And then you’ll be approaching time to replace some (or all) of the batteries, which ain’t cheap either.

      Buy a hybrid if you like the technology; it’s neat. Buy a hybrid if you want to show how “green” you are – even if the car really isn’t.

      But don’t buy it to save money, because you won’t.

    • When I first bought my 2010 Prius, it was getting about 35 MPG due to its not having been broken in yet and the cold weather. After getting some mileage on it (and some warmer weather with better driving conditions), I started regularly getting over 50 MPG in driving that includes city driving as well as going 70+ on the interstate. One trip, where I had 3 passengers and a full load of luggage, I was driving straight into the wind at 75 MPH and got about 45 MPG. Now that the weather’s cold again, it’s getting about 45 MPG on short trips. I’m not one of those so-called “hypermilers”, either.

      • That’s pretty good – but it’s also only about 10 MPG better than the best current-year economy cars. It’s not enough of a difference to make up for the up-front costs relative to something comparable that’s not a hybrid, like the Versa I mentioned in my article.

        Back in the early 2000s, I tested the original Honda Civic Insight – the two-seater. Now that was something. It routinely got 60 MPG and if you babied it, could give you as much as 70 MPG in city driving – better economy than a motorcycle!

        Unfortunately, it was not much more than an enclosed motorcycle: Very small, two seats – a “commuter” car only.

        What would really be something would be a diesel-powered (and less than 2,000 lbs.) small sedan which would give you 50-plus in town and 60 on the highway… priced around $18k.

        That’s what I’d like to see!

  11. Volt or dolt and all the hybrids with their road hugging weight cannot overcome Two things. 1.Physics. 2. The human or should I say Government we Know what is best for Everybody factor.

    • Amen, Jerry.

      There are good solutions – affordable, practical, functional – to the problems of fuel efficiency. But thanks to know-it-all government, these are unavailable to us.

  12. Postscript: the immediate all round solution to better driving plus better mileage right now (IMHO) is definitely the small turbo-diesels out of Europe. Great numbers even when driven hard.

    If you follow commodities (I do) the long term winner will be natural gas (and NGL, natural gas “liquids”) powered trucks (and, of course, eventually cars).

    Dont believe anything out of the Washington swamp. They are nearly all attorneys (Heaven help us !!) and dont have the slightest idea about science of ANY KIND.

  13. One of the least mentioned problems with Hybrids (and I salute peoples’ “intention” to save gas) is that we exchange normal petrol or diesel exhaust (also present in Hybrids of course) for the LONG TERM chemical waste of the battery packs….. chemical waste can pollute for decades (i.e. water tables etc.)…. and please don’t reply that all the batteries are recycled….. even with “some” recycling there is a LIMIT to this chemical recycling that ALWAYS results in long term pollution of the environment…… Ph. D. (theoretical physics)

    • Excellent point, Gregg.

      The typical hybrid battery pack is 200-300 pounds vs. about 25 for the standard car’s start-up battery. Orders of magnitude more caustic chemicals – as well as the inputs necessary to obtain these chemicals int he first place.

  14. Quote:
    [To get a steady 40 MPG (let alone 50 MPG) out of any hybrid – and I have driven all of them, extensively – you must keep your speed under 50 MPH and treat the accelerator as if it were a Faberge egg.]

    I own a 2004 Prius, and I drive it like a regular car. On highway I drive 0-10 mph above speed limit. I’ve never got lower than 40mpg. Average is about 47 I guess, with winter at 43-45 and summer around 50.

    • I don’t doubt it, Allen.

      It comes down to different driving styles – and also where you drive. If you drive mostly on the highway and faster than 70 MPH, or in an area with extreme elevation gains, a hybrid’s mileage is probably going to disappoint you. On the other hand, if you drive mostly at or near the speed limit, with half or more of your driving at lower speeds (especially “stop and go” with frequent “idling”) and so on then a hybrid can deliver mileage as good or better than advertised.

      The issue as regards the Honda suit, as I see it, is that the owner did not fully understand the pros and cons of owning a hybrid vehicle and expected the unrealistic, given how she drives or where she drives.

  15. I have a 2001 Prius. When I lived in BErkeley up a steep hill I got 42 mpg. Now I live in Santa Rosa which is flatter and get 45.5 mpg. So I think the author is wrong. I regularly drive at 65 to 70 mph on the freeway and tend to have a heavy foot. I would scramble Faberge eggs.

  16. Have no idea what you are smoking buy I drive an 08 prius and usually do between 65 and 80 each morning going to work and average around 43 MPG religiously. When the weather is real cold here in Kansas 20 or below I get maybe 39 on real cold days. Otherwise I always get 40 to 44.5 average. I have 102,000 miles on the car now and hope to drive it to 200,000 if I am lucky. Not sure about hondas so I can’t talk about them.

    • If you run 80 for any length of time I highly doubt you’re averaging 43 MPG. Probably, you briefly run 80 and then spend most of the rest of your time under 60 (probably more like 40-45) with a lot of low-speed driving and frequent “idling” (engine off).

      As I wrote, I have driven every new hybrid built since the first hybrids came to market. I’ve test driven a new Prius every year for the past 10 years. I never saw the kind of mileage you’re claiming. Part of the reason may be due to our different driving habits. Part of the reason may be that I live in a mountainous area, with fairly extreme elevation changes. Both of these are factors that vary from individual to individual and situation to situation. It’s got nothing to do with anything I’ve smoked. I’m just reporting my experience, as you are reporting yours.

  17. The woman clearly didn’t do the math. On the news article I read on this the woman said she would have bought the regular civic if she had known the real mpg. One exercise I’ve done to demonstrate the folly of hybrids is to find the payback between a hybrid civic and a regular base civic. The payback takes a good deal longer than most people keep a car they purchase new each time I’ve done it. By the math, she should have bought the regular civic regardless.

    • She didn’t – and should have It’s caveat emptor – and buyers should look into what they are buying before they buy. Not just accept the PR flapdoodle presented by the manufacturer.

  18. The majority of taxi’s in Vancouver, BC are Prius’s? One driver told me they pay for themselves in a year in gas cost’s saved. And I believe they have a 1.8 litre engine.

    • You’re right. Hybrids do make sense economically if you do heavy driving. And a taxi cab fits that bill perfectly. I also spoke with a Prius taxi driver owner who stated a similar thing: That he was spending half as much on gas easily, compared to his previous car.

      • For taxi duty, a hybrid does make sense. Taxis typically sit in traffic a lot and mostly spend their time at speeds under 45 MPH. So, as a “city car,” you can make a case for one – or at least a better case.

  19. My 2010 Prius 3 averages 50 mpg most tankfuls. Had one 3000 mile trip where I averaged close to 50 mpg from Florida to Pennsylvania to Michigan and back including one tankful with an average speed of 70 mph and slightly over 50 mpg.

  20. I should sue Ford…I bought a 2011 F150 with the ecoboost…It should be called ecosham. Doesnt even come close to the numbers Ford put out.

  21. I don’t know about Honda but your assertion that hybrids rarely get 40 MPG (To get a steady 40 MPG (let alone 50 MPG) out of any hybrid – and I have driven all of them, extensively – you must keep your speed under 50 MPH and treat the accelerator as if it were a Faberge egg.) is wrong. I have a 2005 Prius that gets, and has been getting for the past 5 years, between 45 and 50 MPG and we don’t treat it any differently than any other car we have owned including driving 70 miles per hour on the freeway. Get your facts right before you write such dribble.

    • Hi Ray,

      All I can tell you is what I experienced. You probably drive more slowly than I do. And perhaps you don’t have to drive up steep grades frequently, as I do.

      In any case, I’d very much like to see you (or anyone) get 45 MPG out of a Prius at 70 MPH. That might be realistic at speeds closer to 55 MPH.

      • Allow me to remind everyone that my 86 Chev. Sprint (1 litre Suzuki) consistently got 50 MPG and I was always doing 70 with jack rabbit starts.

        It had an 8 gallon tank at at the end of 350 miles never took more than 7 gallons and it was full.

        • Yup – I remember!

          Reason? It was light… which virtually no late model cars are. I don’t think there’s a single new car on the market that weighs less than 2,000 lbs.

      • Eric,

        I once drove my 2004 Prius for 300 miles at speed of 70-80, then 30 miles on local, total mpg was 47. Believe or not.

        Another trip I made from Chicago to Colorado also averaged 47+ I believe, including mostly highway drive at 65-75.

        Prius is the best hybrid out there, in terms of mpg, utility, reliability and even performance, in my view.

      • I had a 2005 prius which I bought new. My experience differs from yours in that the mileage was great on the freeway averaging 60-70 miles per hour. Drove to Oregon a few years ago averaged about 55-60 miles per gallon. This included the California grape vine. Steep up and down hills. It was stop and go on surface streets that killed my mileage. Toyota’s numbers were very deceptive in this saying they got better mileage on surface streets than freeways. Not close to true in my experiance. Surface streets stop and go destroyed my mileage bringing it down to about 30-40. Sold it after 5 years because I wanted a simple car to work on in my retirement.

        • Hi John,

          No question, “your mileage may vary.” I’m not disputing your claims, just reporting my experience. I do drive faster than 70, do deal with hills and do accelerate rapidly (the latter being a major negative effect on gas mileage potential).

          Another factor that’s relevant is temperature. You live in a very moderate climate. The car (any car) warms up faster and you don’t need to use the heat (or AC) as often. In areas where it can be below freezing for months, a hybrid will have to deal with the same issues that affect a regular car battery – including reduced performance – as well as higher load/draw.

          My bottom line is that hybrids are very interesting technology/engineering but not the best way to go if the object is saving money.

          By which I mean, better-than-average gas mileage is irrelevant when it takes years of driving to amortize the higher up-front costs (of the hybrid).

          Example: One could buy a nicely equipped Nissan Versa, a car about the same size as a Prius, for around $15,000. That is about $10,000 less than the base price of a new Prius. You can buy a “stripped” Versa for about $10,000 – and if you’re willing to live without power windows/locks and AC, can start out about $15,000 ahead of the Prius.

          How many years of driving will it take to reach break even given that disparity? Probably at least 5-6 and probably closer to 8-10.

          That’s along time to wait to “save money,” isn’t it?

          I submit the man reason people buy cars like the Prius is because they want to showcase their “green” credentials – either that, or they never took the time to do a little research and run some numbers on their own.

  22. There are 2 economic facts people here are avioding: 1) hybreds cost a lot more than the same size conventional powered cars; 2) A lot of what ever you saved on fuel, (if you saved anything), is going out the window when you have to replace the battery pack. Since the wervice life of the battery pack is somewhat known, it would seem to me that by the time you pay it off, depreciation should be expected to increase significntly compared to the comparable conventional fuel car.

    • Hey John,

      Absolutely. The typical “up front” price difference for a hybrid vs. the non-hybrid version is around $2,000 on the lower end. If you compare the cost of the typical hybrid – something like a Prius – with the cost of a non-hybrid economy compact like, say, a Mazda3, you’re looking at about $5,000 more in up front costs for the Prius. That’s easily three years’ worth of “free” gas – and we haven’t factored in the down-the-road costs of batteries and so on.

  23. Eric, in all your fine writing I must disagree with one point:

    the gas engine is just 1.3 liters and makes only 110 hp. In the non-hybrid Civic, the engine is 1.8 liters and makes 140 hp. Result? The hybrid’s smaller/weaker engine has to work harder to deliver comparable forward thrust – which means it burns more fuel.

    As you know, engines are most efficient at WOT–wide open throttle. I would contend that the 1.3 at WOT should be more efficient than the 1.8 at less-than-WOT.

    There’s a big caveat there–the WOT rule is true for a given engine but not necessarily between different engines. So, for example, if the 1.3 has to pull 6500 RPM at WOT to achieve sufficient power to climb that hill, while the 1.8 only turns 4000 (perhaps at WOT due to tall gearing) then indeed, the additional frictional losses of spinning faster will make the 1.3 less efficient.

    It’s a tough comparison…but you can’t assume just because the 1.3 is working harder it’s less efficient.

    • It’s been years since I’ve looked at the graphs. I believe an engine is most efficient at the peak of the torque range.

      • Maximum engine efficiency is at the lower end of the power curve but not necessarily at peak torque. Actually it is based on several things, such as bore and stroke, intake design, etc. One advantage of a well designed hybrid would be that it can run at the most favorable speed for best efficiency (like a genset) while a direct drive must operate over a wide range of speeds. A major disadvantage is that the conversion of engine power to electric power costs power; if it is saved in a battery before use, the charge/discharge cycle costs yet more. Designing a hybrid myself, many years ago, I concluded that a hydraulic accumulator and drive motor system was more efficient and much simpler to execute. In addition to regenerative braking, it is relatively simple to recover most of the energy in the suspension system (shocks and springs). Any hybrid can use a diesel to good effect, which is considerably more efficient than gasoline.

        • Finally! There is no excuse for not using more hydraulics. Cheaper. Simpler. Don’t have to dig up China or dig to China for rare earths. Same low end torque, same regen braking, but unlike the heavy current required in electrics, hyd flow is limited by the revs when accellerating. Less waste. Possible lower effeciency in cruising usage then hyb-electrics though. But using it for stop and go is a clear winner. Diesel-hyd is used in many off road equipment types. Use the hyd motor for the starter to save weight in both the motor and battery required. Plenty of experience in usage there. Build it and they will come.

      • While I haven’t seen these charts in about 12 years when I was a test engineer at a dynamometer testing facilty, most BSFC (brake specific fuel consumption) charts resemble inverted torque curves. The minimum fuel consumption (per unit of power produced) tended to be very close to the torque peak of the engine.

        And yes – all engines are most efficient at WOT. One (of the many) reasons that throttle-less diesels score significantly better for efficiency.

        Now – a TWO STROKE diesel would be the cat’s meow for good fuel economomy.

        I know – that’ll be the day. Our rulers are hard pressed to even “allow” 4 stroke diesels.

  24. As soon as the VW Tiguan finally shows up at Canadian dealers with the TDI engine I will making an appointment to buy/order one.

    Why VW hasn’t made this compact SUV available here with the diesel engine (same setup as in Europe) is a complete mystery to me.

    Toyota is doing the same thing to us with the RAV4 – the diesel version sold in Europe is not being offered here either!

    What gives?

  25. I’ve driven a 3rd generation Prius for about a year and average 45 mph (rated at 48) but can blame myself as I drive it, as my wife says, like my BMW. Even in ECO mode I’m ususally ahead of the pack at traffic lights and have no trouble passing or manuvering on the interstates. I have no experience with other hybrids. My father had a VW diesel in the 70’s and that was a great car with great mileage but there seems to be a prejudice in this country against diesel.

  26. Unless things have changed since I left the car business, the EPA tells the manufacturer exactly how the test must done (on a stand not on the highway with the simulation computer controlled). The numbers attained from this test are what must be on the window sticker. If this is still true, seems “Big Brother” is the one who should be suied not the manufacturer.

  27. Unless a miracle occurs, I’ll never get a hybrid vehicle. Not just for the horrible gas mileage but also the complexity of it. The best vehicle I ever had was back in the 1980’s. It was an Audi 4000 with a VW diesel engine. With it’s manual transmission I consistently got 45-50 MPG. City and highway driving. Nothing I’ve has ever come close to this in a conventional vehicle.

    • My favorite was the Citroen ID-19 with the large engine. Big luxury car with lots of acceleration to over 100mph and I averaged 32mpg for the 10 years I had the car. I now have a Toyota Highlander Hybrid and, over the past 3 years, I am at 24mpg (yes, I keep records and no, I do not baby the car). Non-hybrid Highlanders are lucky to get 18mpg. Is the gas savings worth it? NO! The two electric motors give excellent low-end torque and fantastic acceleration. Plus, not having gears to shift makes the ride smother. Nice!

      Automakers put a smaller engine into the car because the electric system helps with the acceleration – the major waste of gas. A body at rest requires a considerable amount of energy to get it moving. A moving body requires much less energy. A little 4-banger can keep a big Lincoln moving at 60mph, unfortunately, it would probably take a very long time and a lot of gas to get to 60. Big, powerful engines are only for acceleration or pulling a load. Batteries do not help pull a load but they are great at acceleration.

      Big Brother does not know how to rate a hybrid – it is ALL political.

      • Excellent points, William –

        I recently tested an Infiniti M hybrid; anyone who buys this car to “save gas” is a fool. But it launches like a Top Fueler, almost getting daylight under the front wheels. And that is a good reason to buy this car!

  28. I’m not sure you’ve correctly identified the cause of hybrids getting worse fuel economy than normal cars.

    . Aren’t gasoline engines generally most efficient at the high end of their power range? If a 110 hp engine can perform a given task, I’d expect it to get better mileage than a 140 hp engine performing the same task.

    . The battery always burns some energy in the form of heat when either being charged or discharged. I’m not sure its efficiency is markedly less when it’s being “strained and drained repeatedly”. But yes, any involvement of the battery costs some energy.

    I’m guessing the hybrid is less efficient just because it’s heavier.

    On the other hand, when driving downhill, doesn’t the hybrid store up energy by using its electric motor as a generator? And regenerative braking? These should largely compensate for its higher weight, I would think.

    • Well, the operative phrase here is “if a 110 hp engine can perform a given task…” It can’t. Or at least, can’t perform it adequately. The power to weight ratio is insufficient. So, the engine has to work harder than the 140 hp engine, which has an adequate power to weight ratio.

      Next, think of the gas engine as a generator – which is essentially what it’s doing when it turns chemical energy into mechanical energy and then into electrical energy. No free lunch. It takes power (gas) to make power (electricity).

      Yes, regenerative braking helps, but it only gives you more (a net plus) if you go down more hills than up, or slow down more than you accelerate…

      I’ve driven all the hybrids in existence. Only one – the original Honda Insight – delivered significantly better mileage in real-world driving than a standard (non-hybrid) compact. And the original Insight was a tiny two-seater, which weighed only about 1,800 lbs.

      The ’06 Civic hybrid mentioned in the article weighs 2,875 lbs. – about 300 pounds more than the non-hybrid Civic.

      So, it’s significantly heavier – and 30 hp less powerful.

      So,it struggles more to get going (let alone get going quickly) which puts the arm on its gas mileage.

      You have to really baby these things to get anywhere near the advertised MPGs – and that means being a Clover to your fellow drivers!

      • Interesting article. Your points are valid in my estimation. You can’t fight entropy. Also, don’t forget that any conversion process is never 100% efficient. So having to go through 2 processes (Chemical>Mechanical>Electrical) is quite inefficient indeed. We didn’t even touch the subject of all the energy used to even create a hybrid vehicle to begin with. I drive a 98 VW TDI with 220,000 miles on it and get 42 mpg as I pass all the Priuses (Prii?) that can’t (or won’t) get out of my way.

        • Yup!

          I’ve long argued that it would make much more economic as well as practical sense to put a high-efficiency turbo-diesel in a car weighing less than 2,000 pounds. You’d probably be able to get a realistic 55-60 MPG along with adequate performance at a reasonable price.

          Instead, we have these hybrids – which to me are more about propaganda (look how green I am) rather than economy or practicality.

      • No free lunch.

        Of course. I’m well aware of the law of conservation of energy.

        regenerative braking helps, but it only gives you more (a net plus) if you go down more hills than up, or slow down more than you accelerate…

        If I’m understanding you right, that’s not true. With conventional braking, every bit of kinetic energy is lost as heat (still energy but forbidden by the second law of thermodynamics from ever doing anything useful again). With regenerative braking, SOME of the energy is preserved in useful form. The energy gained by regenerative braking is completely independent of the energy expended to accelerate the car, so there is some benefit whether a particular trip is net uphill or net downhill.

        I’m not, by the way, trying to push hybrids; like you I oppose government subsidies for them and have grave doubts whether they’ll ever be practical in a free market.


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