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Are hybrids really more environmentally friendly?


Celebrities, politicians and the odd mayor or two who own petrol-electric hybrid vehicles may have their hearts in the right place, or perhaps more likely have an eye on generating the right sort of publicity.

However, they’re no more likely to save the planet than eating a Big Mac will help them save weight. Of course, they can be applauded for at least making an effort towards fuel conservation and emissions, yet there’s a real chance their actions are misguided or, at best, misplaced. Inevitably, the hybrid high flyers are acting with political correctness rather than an eye on practicality. Is there a chance the environmental benefits of hybrids are being overstated?

Arguably hybrids have had more than their share of publicity, but that’s not surprising given escalating fuel prices. Yet in world terms they still comprise a tiny percentage of the automotive fleet. In New Zealand where we have 2.7 million petrol powered motor vehicles and 600,000 diesels, the number of hybrids is small.

Toyota leads the hybrid challenge, but of the 8.115 million vehicles made by the Japanese giant last year, only 2.9 percent were hybrids.

A Toyota Prius driven normally achieves about the same fuel economy as a 2.0-litre BMW 320d diesel or Peugeot 307 HDi diesel. Its true great results can be extracted from hybrids. In 2000 I was part of a team of drivers in a first generation Honda Insight hybrid on a run around the British coastline.

We averaged an amazing 100 miles per gallon, but the driving style and conditions were hardly representative of real life motoring.

Drive a hybrid in more cut and thrust conditions and the results are not so bright.
In Britain, the 1.5-litre Prius is the low emission champion with a figure of just 104g/km of climate-change carbon dioxide (C02). Yet its 4.3 litres/100 km (65.7mpg) Extra-Urban fuel cycle is bettered by the two best diesel cars.
Both the Citroen C1 and Toyota Aygo, that each use the PSA Peugeot Citroen 1.4-litre HDi common rail engine, return 4.1 litres/100 km (68.9mpg), although their C02 emissions are slightly higher at 109.

The Citroen C2 and C3 models with the same engine finish equal third in the diesel category, equalling the fuel economy of the Prius. Toyota’s green hatchback is the quietest car surveyed.

Remember the driving cycle tests prescribed by the European Union are artificial, and have become increasingly difficult to replicate on the road.

The third generation Honda Civic hybrid with a constantly variable transmission achieves

5.2 litres/100km (54.3mpg) in the EU urban fuel test, although in everyday city/urban driving that’s a formidable challenge to emulate.
Still, the official tests offer a basis for comparison. The reality is a good diesel powered car is as thrifty as a petrol-electric hybrid.

Quite how the forthcoming diesel-electric hybrids will fare may be a different story. Certainly hybrids shine in slow, stop-start city and urban motoring where braking energy in the battery is recovered and there is zero fuel use at rest.
Out on the highway, with sustained operation that demands use of the petrol motor, hybrid economy deteriorates sharply.

In Britain there’s been debate over the advantages of the Lexus GS 450h, the latest and most expensive hybrid to hit the market. Though this luxury contender is great to drive, and both smooth and quick, it is not especially economical. The car has been criticised for not providing economy or low build costs.

Toyota counters that the Lexus is the best compromise for normal driving speeds, although when the car is running purely on electric power, the range is a minuscule two kilometres. In a comparative test between a hybrid Lexus RX400h and a Mercedes ML320 CDI diesel 4WD from New York to San Francisco, it was the German model that returned the more frugal fuel consumption.

Manufacturers are subsidising the prices of hybrids so their actual costs remain hidden. Both the Prius and Honda’s Civic hybrid models retail in New Zealand for less than they should . A recent report from the American CNW Marketing Research organisation could not have known the costs of hybrid development.
However, it concluded that, in terms of the energy used in their lifetime – from manufacture to recycling – current hybrids are no more energy-efficient than many equivalent conventional cars.

CNW claims the energy cost per kilometre for a Prius is actually higher than for a Toyota RAV4.In response to this, Toyota says that based on a conservative life of 150,000km, the Prius emits 43 percent less C2 than an equivalent petrol car with automatic transmission, and 15 percent less than a manual gearbox diesel.
Hybrids aren’t the only vehicles on the eco-friendly agenda. LPG and bio-ethanol fuels remain alternatives with potential.

Quite rightly, motorists are suspicious of politicians offering incentives to go green when any benefits are likely to be short term or summarily withdrawn at a whim.
In the wake of the first oil crisis of 1973, New Zealand made significant strides in the development of alternative CNG and LPG fuels for motor vehicles. Yet when supplies and prices stabilised, the government lost interest and abandoned incentives.

The British government recently stopped giving Powershift grants to people buying hybrids, electric or alternative fuel cars. This wasn’t the government’s decision but a directive from the over-regulated European Union that decreed it was giving some buyers an unfair advantage. The official line was that the grants were breaching state aid rules, but there are plans to introduce a Carbon Car Fund in Europe.

This would give buyers of cars with C02 emissions below 115g/km a grant of up to $NZ3000.

A recent survey indicated nine out of every 10 motorists were prepared to change to a greener car, but most said it would be financial incentives rather than environmental concerns that would prompt such a shift. Most said they were reluctant to consider a change because they simply did not trust politicians.

Would New Zealanders welcome a change to a greener car or have the motoring conditions in our part of the world not deteriorated to such a state as they have in Europe? New Zealanders are making an effort to adjust their driving habits. Since the dawn of the new century, petrol prices have risen 50 percent while sales of new small cars are up 60 percent. The factor blurring a cleaner and more economical fleet is the continued arrival of a large number of used imports driven more by fashion and fantasy. One thing’s for sure, most of us need to change our habits since the halcyon days of motoring are almost certainly over. 

Auto Trader New Zealand