Bell Bottom Blues

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Bad timing is everything.

Try, for example, selling bell-bottom corduroy pants today. Oh, Behave!

In 1977, it was another matter. But it is no longer 1977. Thank god, the government doesn’t (yet) mandate that clothing manufacturers crank out bell-bottom cords on the theory that it is still 1977 – and then pay people to buy them (using other people’s confiscated money) because government lever-pullers (and gun-wielders) have decided that they think bell-bottom cords are the height of fashion – and we all ought to wear them today, in 2018.

The government does, however, think plug-in hybrids like the Kia Niro I am test driving this week (and plug-in-only electric cars like the sinkhole Teslas) are capital ideas – and does all it can to promote their manufacture and purchase in willful disregard of extremely bad timing.

These partial and non-gas-burning vehicles only make sense (well, to prospective buyers) when gas is expensive enough to make not burning it a sound economic proposition.

This is so because most buyers – unlike the government – have limited resources (their own money) as opposed to the unlimited resources (other peoples’ money) available to the government.

And so, they do the math – because they have to.

Well, the math doesn’t add up. Not favorably. Not while gas costs about $2.35 per gallon and a car like the Niro plug-in hybrid stickers for $27,900 to start. That is $4,560 more than the base price of the doesn’t-plug-in Niro hybrid ($23,340) and that car is also several thousand dollars more expensive to buy than a non-hybrid (gas engine only) equivalent such as a Honda HR-V (which stickers for $19,670 to start).

The plug-in Niro can go as far as 26 miles on battery power alone – i.e., without burning any gas at all.

This is the main difference between a plug-in hybrid and a regular hybrid. The plug-in has a larger, more powerful electric battery that’s strong enough to propel the car at normal road speeds and serve as the primary propulsion source . . . for about 26 miles or so. After which, the gas engine steps back in and becomes the primary again.

In a regular hybrid, the battery is smaller and it – along with the electric motor – provides supplementary power to the almost-always-on gas-burning engine.

The other difference, of course, is that you can plug in the plug-in hybrid – and draw electricity from your house or other external source while in a regular hybrid the only source of electricity is the gas-burning engine, which serves as a carry-it-with-you generator for the battery pack.

Back to the 26 or so miles on battery power.

It is technically interesting. It is neat to be able to drive the thing as an electric car for up to 26 miles and then be able to fall back on the gas engine when the batteries run low.

This is a major functional advantage of a plug-in hybrid vs. a plug-in-only electric car, which you must plug in when the batteries run low – no matter where you are or when you are or how inconvenient it may be to plug it in and then wait for it to recharge.

But economically, the Niro makes as much sense as churning out thousands of pairs of light blue bell bottom cords in 2018 and hoping people will buy them.

You can go as far as 26 miles on the batteries? Well, that works out to saving about 1 gallon of gas –  assuming a not-especially fuel-efficient car. Many new cars that aren’t hybrids or plug-ins average better than 26 MPG, but for the sake of discussion let’s assume 26 MPG.

You saved $2.35 – but you spent $4,560 to do it. Hmmmmm.

Keep in mind that the miles on battery power touted by the plug-in purveyors are best-case-scenario miles. To achieve the maximum range you must drive the car as though you are holding a full-to-the-brim cup of extremely hot coffee, without a lid  . . .  held right over your lap.

Gentle acceleration.

If you need a burst of speed to merge or pass  . . . well, your mileage will vary. Probably, you’ll make it less far than 26 miles on just the batteries. But even if you do make it 26 miles on the batteries – well, you just saved $2.35  . . . not factoring in the cost of the electricity you fed the batteries.

In addition to the $4,560 you spent to buy the ability to plug the batteries in.

I am not picking on the Niro – which is actually one of the less economically demented models of its type on the market right now. The non-plug-inversion is actually pretty quick and so pretty fun to drive (unlike most hybrids).

I merely use it as an example of bad timing. Of unnatural bad timing. Of bad timing that is the result of government monkey-wrenching with the economy and stymying natural market signals.

There might be a natural market market for hybrids, plug-in and otherwise – and even perhaps plug-in-only electric cars . . . if gas prices double. In that case, it might make economic sense to buy a car like the Niro plug-in or others of its kind, like the Toyota Prius Prime (it goes as far as 27 miles on battery power alone).

If gas prices triple, then certainly.

But when gas costs $2.35 a gallon or even $3 per gallon it doesn’t compute to spend $4,560 to save a gallon of it – or even many gallons of it. Because the thousands of dollars you are asked to spend on hybrid/electric technology in order to not burn gas could be used to buy thousands of gallons of gas.


About 2,000 gallons at current prices. Which, if poured 15 gallons at a time into the tank of a non-hybrid runabout like the Honda HR-V, which is about the same size/general type of vehicle as the Niro that averages about 30 MPG (28 city, 34 highway according to the EPA) will give you about 134 full tanks’ worth of driving range – which works out to about 60,000 miles of driving before you burn it all up.

In effect – in fact – the non-hybrid HR-V gets a 60,000 mile financial head start over the hybrid Niro.

This does not factor in the cost of the electricity which the plug-in burns, either.

Nor the cost of dealing with (and paying for) the inevitable deterioration of the batteries over time, as the result of charge/discharge cycling – just like the 12V starter battery in non-hybrid cars.

The hybrid’s efficiency decreases over time for this reason – while an IC-only car’s doesn’t because mechanical engines don’t lose their ability to charge/hold charge over time.

Eventually, of course, IC engines wear out, too – but most modern IC engines don’t wear out for hundreds of thousands of miles. Hybrid batteries don’t last as long because they just can’t; it’s the nature of physics.

Maybe this equation will change when – if – gas prices double or triple. But that doesn’t seem likely. Gas is actually cheaper than ever in real terms, a strong market signal that there is plenty of it – and that we’re not close to running out or even running low.

Adjusted for inflation, a gallon of regular costs less today than in 1965 – and that’s with all the taxes piled on and all the costs of refining the gas to meet Uncle’s mandates, including the noxious ethanol mandate.

But hey, bell bottoms for all.

. . .

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  1. Don’t forget that the depreciation hit one takes on these cheese-mobiles is even worse than on a normal car. No one wants an old hybrid, ’cause they have a very finite life before the batteries crap-out, and the other hi-tech junk starts going south, requiring expensive (if not non-existent) repairs or replacement.

    These things will thus also add to the increasing problem of not being able to find reasonably-priced viable older used cars. IC, EV or hybrid, it’s getting so you buy ’em new…use ’em for a few years..and that’s it. They’re done. We’re pretty much to that point already with newer IC’s- and people are slowly starting to catch on to that fact- hence the stratospheric prices of simpler, more durable older traditional vehicles which are in decent shape.

  2. I’m no physicist, but I WAS trained in the Scientific Method.

    What I can’t understand about this electric car hokum is that according to the First Law of Thermodynamics, energy can neither be created nor destroyed, only transferred. So you might be able to cut CO2 emissions by running an electric car, but in order to recharge it, you have to plug it into the grid and get the juice from a power plant that emits CO2. So nothing’s really gained.

    Sure, in theory you could get the juice from a nuclear or solar plant or a hydro plant. But solar (and wind) plants do not run all the time, and they product only a tiny fraction of our energy needs. Nuke plants have their own issues regarding long term storage of nuclear waste. The fact is that much of the grid is fired by coal or gas.

    Beyond that, electric cars are a problem in colder, northern climates. Try driving through a lake-effect snowstorm in Ohio in one. See how far your electric car gets you on a -20 morning in Minnesota with the heater on full blast. Get stranded, and you’re dead.

    Electric cars might make sense for a bunch of poofters and hippies in San Francisco who commute eight blocks to their art studio where the temperature is 64 +/- two degrees year round. But not for the rest of us.

    The whole thing’s a charade.

    • Another point made by the pro-EV/hybrid crowd is that these cars help reduce pollution in densely populated cities, since power plants are usually located far away from such places.

    • Ninety-three predicted for here on the Gulf Coast today. And it has been above 90 for several weeks now. The same rules of thermo apply to moving heat out of the car and discharging it into an even hotter ambient temp. Juice will be used in large amounts. I admit one can roll down the windows. But that is so ’50s (and really uncomfortable).

      Some try driving with the top down. They broil instead of bake.

  3. Shhhhhhhh what are you trying to do here man Eric!?!?! Do you want gas to cost 3x what it does today!!! Suddenly you will be told that oil is about 3 times more evil than we were previously told…. and the noble government will be ready to fix it with a raft of new taxes and regulation!!! Problem solved – gas is suddenly more expensive….

    • Morning, Nasir!

      I am certain that this “CO2 emissions” business has come into currency because gas prices haven’t gone up, according to The Plan. There is very little, if any, market reason/justification for hybrids, let alone EVs. Hence, the sudden – interesting – conflation of mileage standards and “CO2 emissions.”

      Nothing happens by accident.

      • For sure that’s the case. And all energy companies are all in favor of it too. Up until the Carter administration energy companies of all types were just like every other business. Grow the company through increasing consumption. Then the oil “crisis” hit and all of the sudden power companies were talking about turning off the lights and natural gas companies were promoting turning down the thermostat to 68 instead of 72. Exxon went from “Put a tiger in your tank” to this BS:

        Then the way to grow the business was to take market share away from everyone else, so head up to capitol hill and start pushing selective deregulation “reform” bills into the docket so you can buy up all your competitors (and lock out anyone else from coming into the space). Turns out it is much easier to hire a few lobbyists and lawyers than it is to hire a bunch geologists and engineers.

      • Hey Eric,

        Read this and your article came to mind. Not sure if you know about this, but I do know one of the reasons diesel is expensive in Europe is they use a very low sulphur variant here. Didnt realise they would impose it on everyone at once – but if they do and the demand for the right stuff spikes and pushes prices up…. could that be the catalyst for pushing us all out of our cars??? (ofcourse it will be the evil bankers / arabs / oil companies / 1% at fault for all the fall out).

  4. When these nasty lithium ion batteries wear out, who is responsible for disposal? The last sucker in line who bought the used car?

    • Pretty much so. Hopefully they will have scrap value or the scrap value of the whole car will exceed the battery disposal cost.

      • not usually. I designed some processes for a lithium battery plant. Many of these plants make as much scrap as good product.
        There is no economical way to recycle the material.

    • That comment made me think of the short story “The Bottle Imp”, where the owner of the cursed bottle must sell it for less than the amount paid or end up burning in hell for eternity.

  5. I saw a chart today on CO2 “emissions” I will share it to your FB page but it shows the US decreasing by < 40 million tons while China and India increased by nearly 200 million tons.
    Where do they think all the solar panels, wind turbines and EV car batteries are actually made? Guess what, as I have maintained in the past that this is a fools errand, cut CO2 here raise it by many times somewhere else.
    I am not saying I CO2 is a problem, it is natural, it is plant food and the levels today are still historically low. The correlation between CO2 and temperature is the other way, the temperature rises first then the CO2 follows.
    The Earth has several mechanisms that naturally control the levels, any geologist will tell you about the carbonate rock weathering which has been functioning for a few billion years.

    North American forests sink way more CO2 than we generate in the USA.

    The whole thing is a scam.

    Eric, I am also posting a very interesting photo of a few locations chosen to measure the temperature. When you see then you will understand why they are placed where they are.

    • “I saw a chart today on CO2 “emissions” I will share it to your FB page but it shows the US decreasing by < 40 million tons while China and India increased by nearly 200 million tons."

      That's just part of the deal Obama made with China. CO2 is only an economic and political tool. If it really caused warming then such a "deal" would be absurd. If it's about politics and economics it makes sense with the aims of our betters.

  6. Does anybody think that there is any chance that you’ll be able to get replacement parts, particularly the batteries, for these vehicles once they start failing (3-5-7-10 years down the road)?

    At this juncture, the parts are experimental and under development across all manufacturers. Does anyone seriously think that these car batteries will be functional 10 years down the road? Legal? And, where, except for your own garage, will you find the proper type of charger to plug into?

    • Hi LJ,

      I agree; and it’s not just these plug-ins and electrics, either. People used to accuse the industry of “planned obsolescence,” but that was chiefly a function of rust and (in some cases) general shoddiness. However, those things can be fixed almost indefinitely and by almost anyone and for the most part, within financial reason.

      With new cars, critical electronic components aren’t fixable and replacement components (new or used) may not even be available and if they are, the cost is often prohibitive. This renders them throw-aways much sooner than the cars of the past.

      • This is a major problem for anyone attempting to maintain a vehicle and hoping it will become a classic or antique. I have a spectrum analyzer that has a very common problem of a chip in the power supply going tits-up. Unfortunately the chip hasn’t been manufactured in about 20 years and there aren’t any new old stock in the marketplace, so even though mine is working, it is a dice roll every time I power it up. When it fails (and it will, not a matter of “if”), the one-time $25,000 device will be worth whatever the recycler can get out of it in metal.

        I could see the same thing happening to ECMs and other silicon under the hood. After all, it’s pretty difficult to buy a 80286 processor these days. If your vehicle is popular enough there might be a hacking community that might build a replacement ECM or other modules, but will that pass muster with Uncle’s emissions testing? Probably not.

      • My comment comes from two recent experiences:

        1. Throwing out two computers (older) that had completely ceased to function, after about 8-10 years. They also weren’t “secure” or able to run current programs and the bill to get them fixed would be multiples of a new computer.

        2. Driving my uncle’s 1928 Ford Model “A” last weekend. It still runs like a clock and can be repaired very easily. After 90 years it is still licensed and roadworthy.

        What are the odds that any currently manufactured electric car will be on the road in 90 years? 50? 20? 10?

        Further to that, the only things that I seem to have trouble with on my car are the aging and poorly located computer systems and occasional false alarms from the aging sensors all over the vehicle.

        If you buy something with all of these “bells and whistles”, make sure it is a popular model with common parts or computer systems, or else it will be destined for the recycling bin quicker than you expect.

        • Consumer level computers have numerous corners cut. I have numerous old computers that still function but my 2007 one died a couple years ago. Why? It was a consumer grade computer. I went back to buying used high end machines that only businesses and universities buy.

          Most model Ts were disposed of. There may be more functioning one way or another model Ts today then in some year like 1955 because people will literally pull them out of creek beds and the like. The problem with electric cars will be finding parts. They will require all sorts of hacking of what ever is current technology to keep them going. Similar was done with many a model T but it will be much harder than any hydrocarbon fueled car. Even today’s.

      • For modern IC cars there is an industry of remans for most stuff. Current electric cars won’t have the economy of scale for that. However for both there’s always creating your own control system or using a generic. It just takes well effort.

      • Eric,

        I just tuned up my ’71 Chevy Custom 10/Deluxe today. Pulled and cleaned the plugs, cleaned the contacts on the distributor cap and checked the rotor and points. It took under 2 hours and at 47 years old still runs like a champ.

        I doubt there will be any plug ins still being serviceable at even 15 years of age.

        • Morning, Guerrero –

          Great truck you’ve got! And my TA is similar… pushing 50 years old and most of the car is still original. Granted, it’s not a daily driver, but the mechanicals are almost endlessly rebuildable. And there are almost no electronics. Nothing critical to the operation of the thing, at any rate, that aren’t simple and easily and inexpensively replaced or repaired.

    • Since it’s difficult finding OE parts for regular old petrol Ford or GM products over about 8 years old as it stands we have no chance at all. Our only shot will be the Germans like Merc and BMW, they seem to make parts for decades.

  7. Yes it is what trains do. It would be suitable for large road vehicles like buses.

    I think comes down to generator size. The batteries can provide the power levels required but to charge them the generator doesn’t need to be anywhere near as big and expensive as it would need to be to directly power the electric motors. That is the batteries discharge a lot faster than they charge and thus this buffer allows for a small generator instead of a big one.

  8. Why can’t they make serial hybrids? Then this whole electric car idea would actually make sense! No battery, no transmission, electric motor more efficient than IC motor, never need to plug in (still runs off gas), IC generator would run at mostly a constant speed so it would run at it’s maximum efficiency. Isn’t this what ships & trains do?

    • Hi World,

      The Chevy Volt works like that – and it’s probably the pick of the litter for that reason. But it’s still hard to grok the point.

      The Volt’s price is at least $10k higher than an otherwise equivalent non-hybrid. Therefore, unless gas gets very pricey,it is doubtful you’ll save much money (if any money) driving this car.

      It’s a neat car – and some may buy it for that reason. But IC is still hard if not impossible to beat as economic proposition.


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