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Toyota PriusHybrid Cars – Technological Triumph or Politically Correct Placebo?

By Jim Bray

Hybrid vehicles can offer terrific gas mileage – but are they more than just a way to feel smug that you’re not raping the environment as badly as those evil folk who drive Hummers?

It depends on what you're looking for, in a vehicle or in a political statement.  I’ve driven several hybrids, from the “only practical as a commuter vehicle” Honda Insight to the Lexus luxury SUV hybrid the RX 400h – and quite a few in between. And except for the Insight, most of them don’t penalize you for displaying "greenish" tendencies by forcing you to drive a gutless wonder that takes all the fun out of the road.

They can save you gas money, too, which can be a good thing in these times of comparatively high gasoline prices.

But that's only part of the hybrid story.

Honda Civic HybridWhile a hybrid should save you a few dollars at the pump if you drive them properly, but you'll pay through the nose right off the bat compared to non-hybrid models. Honda’s Civic hybrid, for example, starts at about $22,000 U.S., compared to the base Civic's starting sticker of about $15,000. The Lexus RX 400h SUV carries a premium of about $8,000 U.S. over its  petro-swilling counterpart, while the basic Ford Escape hybrid is about six grand pricier than the conventional Escape.

Once you've bitten that bullet, you need to relearn your driving techniques to best exploit a hybrid's gas sipping potential. Not only can't you drive a  hybrid like it's a race car, you can't even drive it the same way you'd drive a regular car if saving gas is your primary motivation.

In my experience, hybrids only get the best mileage if your foot is feather light on the gas pedal, always working to exploit the electric part of the gas/electric equation. Otherwise you're relying more on the gas-powered half and defeating the car's purpose somewhat – though even then you should still see some improvement in your gas mileage over a gas-only car.

I don't know about you, but I have a heck of a time with driving like this. It takes real discipline to crawl forward slowly while some little old lady blows my doors off!  But even if you master the driving technique, chances are you won't save any money on the total investment over the life of the car, thanks to that initial premium.

According to the British Columbia Automobile Association and, the average hybrid won't save enough gas to pay for the higher price unless you drive it two-to-three times per year as much as your current conventional car, which seems unlikely.

Ford Escape HybridEven if you do put on that many miles, you may be faced with extra service or maintenance costs which would up the ante even more.

The bottom line is that gas prices would have to be nearly three times what they are now to make hybrids economically feasible from a total cost savings perspective.

Then there are the battery packs. No one seems to know how long they’ll last, how much they’ll cost to replace – and what they’ll do to landfills if they end up there. To be fair, they generally have good warranties and they should last long enough that the original owners probably won't have to worry about replacing them. But anyone buying a used hybrid should keep this eventual cost in mind.

On the other hand, prices of new technologies generally come down over time, so by the time the battery pack needs to be replaced chances are they'll be giving them away in cereal boxes.

Hybrids' other big selling point is their clean operation, so while you may not save any money with a hybrid, you may pollute less and that may be important to you. But conventional gas engines are getting cleaner and cleaner all the time, too, and in fact many (if not most) are so clean these days that the difference between them and a hybrid may not be as much as you might think.

Making a statement…

It seems that, to some, driving a hybrid makes one feel better about oneself – and isn't feeling good what life's all about?  Or maybe it's making a statement that's important.

Perhaps the most famous hybrid is the Toyota Prius, which has no gas-only counterpart and is a very nice car by any measure. The current, second generation Prius is a great car and, perhaps because its unique styling makes it stand out from hybrids that look virtually the same as their gas-fueled counterparts, it can come across as the liberal elite's hybrid of choice: when you're in a Prius everyone knows what a great and responsible citizen you are!

According to USA Today (and we know they wouldn't lie, don't we?), stars such as Cameron Diaz, Susan Sarandon and Tim Robbins, and Harrison Ford and Calista Flockhart have arrived at Oscars ceremonies "in complimentary chauffeur-driven Toyota Priuses," after Toyota teamed with Global Green USA for what was a brilliant marketing scheme for Toyota. In 2006, celebrities such as George Clooney and Joaquin Phoenix partook of the free hybrids, which have branched out to include ones from Toyota's premium brand, Lexus.

What does it say about the celebrity participants when the hybrid in which they're arriving is a freebie they're handing back when the cameras stop shooting? Sure, they're replacing the usual rented limo with something a little greener, but c'mon. Do they actually drive hybrids day in and day out or is this just a way for them to look better than the rest of the unwashed masses, evil polluters and panderers to the petro-people that we are?

Some do, apparently. That same USA Today article also mentions a number of Hollywood elites who actually bought hybrids, sometimes multiple hybrids. Kudos to them for putting their money where their mouths are – assuming they don't just park them out in front of their estates for their show value.  

Still, despite my aversion to political correctness, I've grown to like hybrids because they're nifty pieces of technology that work well and also happen to be good and practical vehicles you can live with every day.

As long as you're comfortable with the investment required.

Jim Bray is a member of the Automobile Journalists Association of Canada. His columns are available through the TechnoFile Syndicate.

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