PLUG OK license plate
Car And Driver's Patrick Bedard on Hybrid Paybacks
Nov 12, 2005 (From the CalCars-News archive)
This posting originally appeared at CalCars-News, our newsletter of breaking CalCars and plug-in hybrid news. View the original posting here.
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This subject keeps coming up; Bedard has fun with it. In addition to this answer, you can see our serious discussion of the issue at and comment on it at my blog section_id=27&article_id=10260&page_number=1

Buying pleasure: Will it be a Hemi or a hybrid? BY PATRICK BEDARD
Car And Driver December 2005

You can write out your check for 50 large, arrive home in a shiny black Ford F-250 Harley-Davidson Super Duty, its dubs bulging out the rear fenders like steroid-infused biceps, and no one on this staff will say, "Boy, you're never going to get your money's worth out of that thing."

Or maybe you ante up for the Eddie Bauer option on your Ford Expedition. You won't be scolded on these pages, told that you'll have to sit on those leather seats for an extra 50,000 miles to recoup your foolish outlay for Eddie.

But show a little enthusiasm for hybrids? We purse the puritan lips and say, "You know, the mileage is not that great. You'll have to drive it till it's as used as Willie Nelson to save gas enough to get your cost back."

Maybe, maybe not. Remember those lazy, hazy days of $2-a-gallon gas? We've passed $3 in much of the country as I write this. Do I hear $4? Crude was up over 50 percent this year before hurricane Katrina.

Not, mind you, that C/D is about sensible shoes. About half the content of some issues comes with a window sticker over $50,000. And we don't screen vehicles according to some Warren Buffett value analysis to make sure your money would be well spent. This is a magazine about self-expression with cars. You dress for the road. Nobody gets drafted into Porsches or Escalades. You wear them for your own reasons.

I met a woman a few months back who'd had her money down on a Prius for more than a year. The list was too long, the dealer told her; he didn't want her money. But she insisted. She knew the Prius was a radical step toward energy conservation, and she wanted a car that expressed her feeling on that topic. She wanted to be seen as a Prius kind of woman.

What's hard to understand about that?

The knock on hybrids takes two forms, both of which I hear often around the water cooler. First, they're not a real solution to energy consumption because the makers lose money on each one they sell; therefore, hybrids are unsustainable.

About a year ago, when Ford introduced the Escape hybrid, I asked Steve Lyons about that; he's that company's head of North American sales.

"At 50,000 units," he said, "we've got a business. At 70,000, we've got profits."

So far, Ford has been sticking to its rollout plan of 20,000 units for 2005, to be followed by 24,000 (Ford and Mercury versions) for 2006. They sell quickly, with unsold supply averaging about 3000 cars scattered among 4000 dealers.

Ford's hybrid machinery is similar to the system Toyota uses in the Prius, which sold 53,308 units in the first half of 2005, putting it on track to top 100,000 in the U.S. over the year. That would make it solidly profitable according to the Ford yardstick.

The other knock on hybrids is that they don't get the fuel economy promised by the EPA numbers. Oh, yes, they do, if you drive them as the government drives them on the standard test. Of course, I drove my own routes at my own speeds during my week in a hybrid Lexus RX400h. About half was on freeways, sometimes at speeds above 80; at least 75 miles were in rain. I measured 25.3 mpg over 468 miles. Maybe that doesn't sound miraculous, but when we tested a conventional RX330 (C/D, July 2003), the C/D-observed fuel economy was 17 mpg.

In fact, neither Lexus matched its EPA rating in our hands. But the hybrid outperformed the conventional version by 8 mpg. What mileage would a hybrid achieve in your driving? There's a big clue hidden in plain sight in the EPA ratings. You'll notice normal cars make better numbers on the highway test than the city test. Hybrids (with automatics) almost always do better in city than highway. Compare a Lexus RX330 AWD at 18 city, 24 highway, with a hybrid RX400h AWD at 31 city, 27 highway. The hybrid shows a 13-mpg improvement in the city but only 3 mpg on the highway.

Much of any hybrid's gains come from recapturing the energy of motion you'd normally waste when you apply the brakes. There's a lot of braking in urban driving, which means a lot of energy available for the hybrid to put back into its battery. But there's only occasional slowing on the highway and therefore little potential for regeneration.

If most of your driving is urban slow-and-go, a hybrid will probably do well for you. If you commute on free-flowing interstates, forget hybrids. It's this simple.

Or maybe not. We're all adults here, and we know that pleasure costs money.

Interstate 17 pitches up and down, but mostly down, over the 140-mile run from Flagstaff to Phoenix, Arizona, descending from 7000 feet to about 1000. I was watching the Lexus's "power" screen out of one eye; it shows the flow of power through the hybrid system. With the cruise set at 70 mph, I noticed the engine shut off when the downgrade got steep enough. So I kept inching up the cruise. How fast would it go without the engine? I ran out of hills before finding the upper limit. But I can tell you that the RX400h will dead-stick down at 80 with the A/C and power steering alive. If you weren't watching the screen, you'd never know the engine was off.

Would a car that clever be a pleasure to you? It is for me.

I was testing a Ford Escape hybrid a few months back. It was warm from a previous trip as I backed down my driveway to the street. Tires crunching on gravel was the only sound. I levered into D and headed downhill past three houses, then uphill to the stop sign. The engine didn't start. How far could I go on the battery? It would be uphill from there, up two blocks of Fox Road, a short zig on Gambel, then uphill again, up the climb where a Lexus IS300 lost grip in the snow on its summer tires, got stuck, and left me to make Reebok tracks back home. I expected the Escape's engine to kick in, but it didn't.

By this time I was into the game. To keep my engineless streak going, I admit rolling past the stop sign onto the main road. No traffic, no foul. That left another 100 yards to the crest, gently uphill now, but also inescapably up . . . would it, could it? YES! Now a long, half-mile coast to the highway, 1.7 miles from home with the engine still off.

Hybrids are really fun for me.

If you want to save money on your next car, here's my advice: Skip the onboard nav option. You'll never save enough in maps and 50-cent phone calls to get your initial cost back.

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