BUSINESS

HYBRIDS SUCK GAS

They’re a hit among those who want to save money and the environment. But they don’t do much of either.

NANCY MACDONALD December 5 2005
BUSINESS

HYBRIDS SUCK GAS

They’re a hit among those who want to save money and the environment. But they don’t do much of either.

NANCY MACDONALD December 5 2005

HYBRIDS SUCK GAS

They’re a hit among those who want to save money and the environment. But they don’t do much of either.

NANCY MACDONALD

These are bad days for the Big Three. Ford and GM are gasping for breath as sales of their bread-and-butter sport utility vehicles collapse in the face of high gasoline prices—industry-wide, SUV sales have dropped 50 per cent for the Big Three. That’s part of what’s dragged GM’s October sales down a jaw-dropping 23 per cent over last year, sending its stock to its lowest level in 18 years and leading to the huge layoffs announced last week. “We may not see another Katrina-induced spike in gas prices any time soon,” says Dennis DesRosiers, of DesRosiers Automotive Consultants, “but prices will continue to go up, not down, and consumers are behaving accordingly.”

Conspicuous virtue has become the new black, tipping the balance from gas-hungry trucks in favour of hybrid technology. Consumers are looking to fuel-efficient cars to reduce costs, to the environment and their pocketbooks. Toyota surged ahead in October, notching the biggest share of the market ever for its hybrid vehicles, which include the world’s top-selling Prius. Famously, production of that car cannot keep apace with demand: they’re sold before they even make it to Canada, where the average wait nears two months. And hybrid sales are likely to increase as Ontarians and British Columbians become aware of $1,000 and $2,000 tax breaks, respectively, available to them.

The only problem is that hype is driving the market. Experts warn that hybrids’ fuel effiency is overstated by more than 25 per cent. The vehicles won’t actually save consumers much money, and they won’t save the planet either.

Pete Blackshaw, from Cincinnati, Ohio, knows this first hand. The 41-year-old marketing executive was so excited about Honda’s Civic Hybrid that his wife Pamela filmed their trip to the dealership. He added vanity plates that read “Mo Miles” and created a blog al-

most evangelical in its tenor. But he’s since changed his tune. And his wife wants new plates. Her suggestion? “No Miles.” “Over time I realized the hybrid wasn’t living up to its promised mileage,” Blackshaw says.

He’s not alone: according to industry watchdog Consumer Reports, hybrid cars actually achieve less than 60 per cent of their government ratings in city conditions. While all cars studied fell short of their published scores, Consumer Reports found the biggest discrepancy among the hybrids, whose main selling point is fuel thriftiness. Their test showed that Blackshaw’s Civic Hybrid aver-

‘The electric motor only kicks in below 50 km/h, and people rarely drive those speeds, even on city streets’

aged 0.09 litres/kilometre in the city, significantly less than its estimated 0.05 litres/kilometre.

Blackshaw blames “bad labelling requirements and methodology,” not Honda, for his car’s lower-than-advertised fuel efficiency. DesRosiers agrees, faulting dated North American protocols (in Canada, Natural Resource’s “EnerGuide”), which derive their numbers from 19-year-old tests, conducted in the idealized settings of laboratories. “If driven as tested,” DesRosiers notes,

hybrids get the mileage promised.”

But we don’t drive that way. The problem, really, is in the way hybrids work. They combine two power sources—gasoline and electric—under one hood. Most can’t operate solely on electricity. The combination is meant to reduce the car’s overall consumption of gasoline—and it does, but not by much, because the battery-powered electric engine works only at low speeds. “The hybrid’s electric engine only kicks in under 50 km/hour, so when you drive slowly, you’re not using gas, but people rarely drive those speeds, even on city streets,” says DesRosiers. Congestion has increased, so drivers tend to jackrabbit through the city, braking more and accelerating faster, which EnerGuide’s tests don’t consider. (Hybrids use a combination of gas and electric power when accelerating at low speeds.)

Stephen Akehurst, EnerGuide’s senior manager, admits the test reflects “an ideal,” not “real world conditions.” He’s optimistic that discrepancies will be remedied if government bodies implement proposed changes that would consider head winds, winter driving, improperly inflated tires, and gas-draining accessories, like air conditioning. In the meantime, however, mixed results have left a trail of confused consumers, Blackshaw among them. He’s still bullish about the technology, but argues “people need to know that real mileage is significantly lower than what’s advertised.”

The bottom line for consumers is to beware the hype. Hybrids cost an additional $5,000 to $15,000 over their gasoline-only counterparts, and their fuel efficiency isn’t as promised, meaning far higher operational costs and environmental impact than advertised. And it takes a lot longer—five to 10 years—to recover the premium paid. M

ANTHONY PIAZZA KILLS WEEDS, SAVES CHILDREN

Anthony Piazza, a technician with TruGreen Lawn Care in Fort Bend, Texas, was working on a customer’s lawn when a 38-yearold woman burst from her home clutching her unconscious infant, screaming that the baby had drowned in the bathtub. Police said Piazza, 52, slapped the child on the back until it coughed up water and began to breathe, saving the baby’s life, and presumably winning new converts to the use of pesticides.