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Hybrid MPG Myths




I recently received an e-mail from Rich Mitchell encouraging CDN contributors to write about subjects other than politics, to “expand our horizons.” So I decided to research and write about a subject in which I have knowledge and about which I know nothing: automobiles. I grew up when muscle cars were king, and I worked as a mechanic to put myself through college. But I’m afraid that technology has passed me by, specifically about hybrids.

On January 22, 2012, while watching the NFL championship games, I was “treated” to some hybrid automobile commercials and what great gasoline mileage they delivered. The commercials got me to thinking (yes, it hurt) and, as a result, I did some research on hybrids. As we all have heard and read, the Chevrolet Volt has been a sales and engineering fiasco. Chevy sold 7,671 Volts in 2011. It was outsold in 2011 by the Nissan Leaf, at 9,674, its main electric car competitor. Further, GM will strengthen the structure around the batteries in the Volt to keep them safe during crashes, and GM has offered to buy back any Volts that are considered as fire hazards by owners. And it was #3 on Yahoo!’s “Worst Product Flops of 2011.”

But I digress – this post is about hybrids, not about the Chevy Volt.

Here is what I found on the Internet (not TV commercials) at this source:

  1. 2012 Nissan Leaf – 92 miles per gallon (mpg)
  2. 2012 Chevy Volt – 90 mpg
  3. 2011 Toyota Prius – 48 mpg
  4. 2012 Honda Civic Hybrid – 43 mpg
  5. 2012 Ford Fusion Hybrid – 36 mpg

Yes, hybrids can get good gas mileage – IF!!! But 92 or 90 or even 48 mpg is a bit much, even for hybrids. So let’s take a look at hybrids, the Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) testing procedure, and the “real world.”

To get 40 mpg, or the mpg promised by advertisers, from any hybrid the speed must be kept under 50 miles per hour (mph), and the accelerator must be treated as if there is an egg under it. Going any faster will ruin your mpg. Driving slowly (under 50 mph) can be an adventure. You will impede the progress of most motorists, and merging into traffic can really become an adventure. But driving under 50 mph negates most wind resistance (something missing from EPA testing – but claimed by adjusting rolling resistance).

But the biggest problem for hybrids in the real world are hills. Nowhere in the EPA testing can I find anything about hills in their testing procedure. Hybrids work best on a flat, level surface. Once rolling, it doesn’t take much power to keep hybrids rolling. Many hybrids can actually shut down the gas engine and keep rolling only on batteries. But (and there is always a “but”) there are hills in the real world. As hybrids tackle hills two things simultaneously happen: the gasoline engine starts, and the batteries are depleted as the electric motor tries to help the gasoline engine maintain speed. When the gasoline engine, which is typically quite small in hybrids, starts it struggles to do two things. First, it tries to cope with the increased load caused by the hill. Second, it tries to recharge the depleting batteries. Asking the gasoline engine to do two things at once quickly ruins the mpg. Of course, slowing down when a hill is encountered is always an option.

Further, as the batteries age, they deplete faster and require the gasoline engine to run more to keep them charged, also depleting mpg. Often two or three year old hybrids will not deliver the mpg of a new, similarly sized, half as expensive, conventionally powered automobile. And, as this source illustrates, the breakeven mileage between a hybrid and a conventionally powered car can be quite high.

And, while doing research for this article, I found out about Heather Peters, a former attorney, and her lawsuit against Honda in California small claims court. Peters says her 2006 Honda Civic Hybrid never came close to getting the promised 50 miles per gallon, and as its battery deteriorated, it was getting only 30 mpg. She wants Honda to pay for her trouble and the extra money she spent on gas. No high-priced lawyers are involved in small claims court and the process is streamlined. “I would not be surprised if she won,” said Richard Cupp Jr., who teaches product liability law at Pepperdine University. “The judge will have a lot of discretion and the evidentiary standards are relaxed in small claims court.” Peters has launched a website, DontSettleWithHonda.org, urging others to take the small claims route.

So, where are we? Well, the EPA testing procedure is a farce. But, as they say, EPA ratings are a useful tool for comparing the fuel economies of different vehicles but may not accurately predict the average MPG you will get. The problem arises because manufacturers advertise EPA ratings, and represent them as actual mpg that can be expected in the real world.

But that’s just my opinion.

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  1. Suzanne says:

    I’m just one data point, but I have a 2007 Prius. I pretty consistently get 50-55mpg most of the year (in CA), 45-50mpg in the winter. I do a mixture of city and highway driving and typically drive 65-70mph on the highway. I’m reasonably gentle w/ my accerator, and I do drive w/ an eye to fuel efficiency (the displays make it easy to do that), but I use it when I need to and have no trouble merging, etc. You are correct about hills — most of my driving is pretty flat, and hills can definitely adversely affect my mileage, but even when I am driving hills I don’t think I’ve ever had a tank much under 40mpg. I haven’t really noticed any change in performance over the 5 years I’ve had the car.

    To be honest, my husband also has a Prius and usually only gets mileage in the 40’s (he drives considerably faster than I do, w/ a bit of a lead foot). But still, I don’t think it’s as impractical to get good mileage as you make it out to be.

    Also, the numbers for the Leaf and Volt are mpg-equivalents — they are assuming you will spend some significant fraction of your driving time in electric-only mode, so that’s how they get those numbers.