Hybrids and Diamonds

September 16, 2005
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There was a lot of buzz about hybrids at last week's Frankfurt Motor Show, with manufacturers ranging from Mercedes-Benz to Daihatsu showing off more than a half-dozen different prototypes - including the Benz Bionic Car, seen here. Despite the seeming concession, European industry leaders remain highly skeptical of the technology, even as sales numbers soar back in the States.

But there's also a growing backlash in the U.S., where a number of mainstream publications have come to question bold claims long accepted as gospel. Even the enviro-friendly New York Times weighed in some weeks back with a story suggesting that in real-world usage, the Lexus RX 400h hybrid gets no better mileage than a conventional, gasoline-powered RX 330 - which also costs about $10,000 less. Mercedes-Benz staged a cross-country drive pitting the RX 400h against a European diesel-powered M-Class. By the end of the route, the German ute was averaging several miles a gallon more than the Japanese crossover.

There are plenty of positive things to say about hybrids, though motorists need to be wary of what the current technology can actually deliver. Sadly, that's something politicians seem to be ignoring. The new federal energy bill will provide hefty incentives for hybrids, rather than diesels. And in the rush to appear concerned in the wake of rising oil prices, legislators have also approved the use of HEVs in so-called diamond lanes. Several dealers report customers saying mileage really doesn't matter to them; they're much more concerned about cutting through rush-hour traffic. Ironically, it's the worst way to ensure hybrid efficiency. Remember, gas-electric technology is most effective in stop-and-go traffic, where you can recapture energy normally lost in braking and even run in purely electric mode. Hybrids are least efficient on open highways. So if a Prius with one person racing along in the high-occupancy lane is doing far less to save gas than it would stuck in traffic. Put the SUVs in the fast lane, and require hybrids to slug it out with the rest of us.

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