All hybrids have some type of premium associated with them that makes them more expensive than their conventional counterparts, but is that premium really worth it when you consider cost versus reduced environmental impact and fuel savings? It’s a question that thrift-conscious and green-minded consumers often find themselves asking when doing new car research.
It’s a tough question to answer and one that will clearly be different for each individual based on how important it is to reduce environmental impact and fossil fuel use. Yet, even though the process is highly subjective, the Union of Concerned Scientists (UCS) has developed the Hybrid Scorecard to help consumers determine if that premium is worth it for each hybrid on the market.
First the group looked at all the hybrids currently available on the market and determined an “Environmental Score” to “look past the hybrid label to see if hybrid technology is truly being used to maximize reductions in both global warming and smog-forming emissions.” The score is a measure of a vehicle’s improvement in global warming pollution over its closest conventional counterpart.
What they found was that among the hybrids available for purchase there is a huge difference between the best and the worst performers. “Going from a conventional Toyota Matrix to a Prius reduces global warming emissions a whopping 44 percent,” says the group’s website. “That’s like trading in a Hummer H3 for a Mini Cooper. By contrast, going from a Saturn Aura to an Aura Hybrid only reduces emissions 10 percent, the equivalent of trading in the Hummer H3 for a 3.7-liter Jeep Grand Cherokee.”
The group took special exception with what they call “hollow hybrids” saying that cars such as the Chevy Malibu Hybrid and Saturn Aura Hybrid fall into this category. “Their electric motors aren’t powerful enough to provide significant assistance in moving the vehicle, a key feature of hybrid technology,” stated the group’s website. “In reality, these are not hybrid vehicles. Their poor Environmental Score and Hybrid Value rating show how taking a half-hearted approach to hybrid technology can undermine consumers’ confidence in the hybrid label.”
Next the group looked at whether or not the vehicles in question had a good “Hybrid Value.” In other words, how much of a reduction in environmental impact do you get for your buck? What the group found was that a 27 percent or greater reduction in global warming emissions for a hybrid premium cost of about $4,000 fell into the category of “High Value.” According to the group’s website, “Toyota, Honda, Ford, and General Motors have all shown they have the capacity to deliver high hybrid value in vehicles ranging from compact cars to full-sized SUVs.”
The group found that misusing hybrid technology in the form of what they call “muscle hybrids” resulted in low value by combining the premium hybrid technology costs with poor emissions performance. For example, according to their methodology, the GMC Yukon Hybrid and Chevy Tahoe Hybrid SUVs have a lower Hybrid Value rating because “their hybrid drivetrains were coupled with bigger engines that help the vehicle deliver additional power and torque.”
Lastly the UCS wanted a way to measure how artificially inflated the price of a hybrid was compared to a conventional counterpart. The way the group sees it, the hybrid drivetrain certainly adds justifiably to the cost of a new hybrid. But in order to inflate their profit margins, some automakers add non-optional bells and whistles such as leather upholstery and upgraded audio systems. Overall the the UCS found that the average hybrid comes with $3,000 of these “forced features,” as the group calls them.
As the group’s website says, “Car buyers deserve the freedom to invest extra dollars in fuel economy instead of frills. Honda’s Insight has no forced features, resulting in a 40+ mpg vehicle that costs less than $20,000. By comparison, Honda’s 42 mile per gallon Civic Hybrid is loaded with $3,362 worth of forced features, bringing its MSRP to $23,550. The worst offender is the Lexus LS 600h L, which comes with more than $17,000 of extra features on top of an already luxury-laden base model.”
Check out the full list on the UCS website hybridcenter.org. Although the list clearly has some warts, it does highlight many of the problems we’ve all noticed with the way hybrids are engineered and brought to market. Do you think the UCS’ Hybrid Scorecard is helpful?
Image Credit: Nick Chambers