Hybrid Cars: Are They as Good as Some Claim?

Last Wednesday night, NBC evening news featured one segment wherein some consumers voiced their opinions that the manufacturers of hybrid cars were fudging the statistics relative to their mileage claims. One such claim was documented by a clip of a consumer who is taking Honda to court over an alleged promise, by the sales representative, that she could expect to get 50 MPG. This consumer’s battle led them to small claims court where they sued Honda, citing that the mileage claims were deceptive and deceitful. In its defense, Honda countered that its mileage claims specifically included a disclaimer that mileage could vary depending on individual driving conditions. While that subject itself was interesting, what really captivated my thought processes was what we, as consumers, should expect from either hybrid or electric vehicles.

After watching the segment, and as a result of those creative thought processes flowing, I went out surfing to see if it was even feasible to believe that any currently manufactured vehicle could operate efficiently while providing the consumer with 50 MPG of worry-free driving pleasure. My Sherlock Holmes skills (that I have been honing for some time now) led me to take a look at the EPA website. Once there, and using my trusty magnifying glass, I used the same 2006 Honda Civic Hybrid featured in the NBC news segment to determine that the mileage estimates for that vehicle were 40 MPG city and 45 MPG highway. I found it odd that while the woman in the segment presented an EPA sticker showing that the vehicle would deliver the alleged 50 MPG, the combined total on the website only showed a combined total of 42 MPG. Upon further investigation, I found the old EPA ratings, which had been updated with the following disclaimer added:

EPA changed the way it estimates fuel economy starting with the 2008 model year. This “new” way of estimating fuel economy supplements the previous method by incorporating the effects of

  • Faster speeds and acceleration
  • Air conditioner use
  • Colder outside temperatures

Hybrid Cars: Are They as Good as Some Claim?My best detective skills then led me to the conclusion that the EPA had decided to make the new estimates retroactive and changed its estimates to include pre-2008 models. So are the new estimates more accurate than the old, and are hybrids a better option to buy than traditional, gasoline-powered vehicles? Your answers may vary since this all depends on how many miles you drive a day, the type of driving you do (city vs. highway), and how much fuel is currently selling for in your area of the country. Since fuel costs and driving conditions can vary drastically depending on these factors, you would be remiss not to take them into consideration in calculating your savings from driving a gasoline-powered vehicle versus a hybrid.

Last year, I was fortunate enough to be able to fly to both coasts of the US to visit family and friends. During these visits, I couldn’t help but notice how much costlier a gallon of gasoline was in these areas than it was in the Midwest. Believe me, I am not complaining, since some of the coastal area prices were up to a dollar more per gallon than what I can purchase it for at home. In fact, this was again brought home to me as I caught a glimpse of a Chevron station’s sign while watching a news segment about the arsonist who was arrested and incarcerated near Los Angeles. While I wasn’t necessarily surprised, I noticed that they were selling a gallon of unleaded for $4.05 gallon, whereas I had just returned a few hours earlier from purchasing it for $2.87 a gallon. So why does this matter?

When I was getting ready to write this article, Chris Pirillo mentioned that his Toyota Prius has really saved him a bundle. Apparently, his accountant had mentioned something to him about the reduction in his fuel costs over previous years. With no detective tools in Seattle, however, I can only venture a guess that previously Chris may have been driving a standard motor vehicle with a traditional gasoline engine (maybe even equipped with a V-6 or larger). If that was the case, this savings is to be expected, as can be seen through a recent Facebook entry by my son-in-law. His entry was posted after his return trip from a cave-exploring expedition. As you will see, driving home on I-35 in his Dodge RAM 1500 pickup truck (equipped with a Hemi) while pulling a 32 ft. trailer wasn’t for the lightweight or light of cash:

Pulling this travel trailer into this strong headwind is killing me! Was getting 3.8 mpg on I-35. That’s like throwing a dollar bill out the window every mile!

In this particular case, I am sure my son-in-law wished he had bought any kind of a hybrid vehicle so that he could be bragging about his newfound fortune from the amount of money he had saved.

Therefore, having used the best tools available to this detective, I believe that the advantages of hybrid ownership depends on the following individual criteria:

  • Past vehicle ownership. If you are going from a Dodge pickup truck equipped with a Hemi to a Toyota Prius, you should be delighted with your increased gas mileage. For me, I already own a four banger, so my savings would be less.
  • Where you live. The price of gasoline will also dictate how much your savings will be.
  • Driving habits. If you are a leadfoot driver, your mileage may not be as high as you may hope.
  • Distance you drive. How long you drive each day will have an effect.
  • Type of driving. City drivers will see less of a return than highway drivers will.

As far as suing the manufacturers for erroneous mileage claims, this to me seems absurd. I believe that most of us look at the EPA window sticker realizing that it is a best foot forward type of guess as to what the consumer might expect. When I bought my 2009 Nissan Rogue SL AWD vehicle new, the sticker stated that the expected mileage was 21 MPG city and 29 MPG highway. Both mileage estimates proved entirely accurate for me, despite the fact that the EPA guideline changes tell me that I should only expect to see 21 MPG in the city and 26 MPG highway. That means that I am actually getting more miles per gallon than estimated when I drive long distances. That leads me to the conclusion that estimates are exactly what they claim to be: estimates only and not an exact miles per gallon guarantee.

Given these considerations, you can determine how good your hybrid experience will be. So are these hybrid vehicles as good as some people claim?

You decide. Comments welcome.