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Bye-bye hybrid?

Published July 11, 2007


Rumblings in the automotive world suggest that Honda killing its Accord hybrid may have been just the canary in the over-hyped hybrid coal mine. Honda’s decision raises the question: Are hybrids just a fad — a short-term solution to a long-term problem?

Until now, the big reason why people bought hybrids was the dual promise of frugal fuel consumption and zero emissions — save your money, save the Earth.

Trouble is, the media has generated enough hybrid hype that dealers are reluctant to negotiate on the purchase price. Beyond the current get-‘em-while-you-can government rebates, zero per cent financing or cash-back incentives on hybrids in Canada are about as rare as free gas.

Hybrid operating costs also need to be heeded.

Do you drive at the speed of traffic on the highway in less than ideal conditions (i.e., when it’s windy and the road is hilly?) Or live in a climate where you use your car’s defroster or air conditioning (which, here in Ottawa, where we go from winter frost to summer humidity over lunch, is about 365 days of the year)? Using the condenser in the A/C system uses more power, which uses more fuel.

If this sounds like your driving lifestyle, you can pretty much forget about achieving the typically surreal fuel consumption estimates that most hybrids claim.

(In addition, the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency is in the process of updating its fuel consumption testing for the first time in more than 40 years to include real-world conditions. Not surprisingly, hybrids — like all other cars — take a beating. Some experts are estimating a 20 per cent increase in consumption compared to the current EPA ratings.)

The final reason hybrids may end up as a passing fancy is that, in a traditional sense, they effectively remove the act of driving as a visceral experience.

So hybrids are expensive to own, don’t deliver on advertised fuel consumption and are about as exciting to drive as a Kenmore side-by-side. Yet hybrid fans can absolve their vehicles of all these sins by self-righteously claiming ownership of the low emissions crown, right?

Yes, up until now.

New car customers are demanding vehicles that are cleaner, and more fuel-efficient — without the extra costs and driving compromises that are inherent with hybrids. And automakers are responding.

One example is the very non-hybrid Mini D. Not planned for Canada (yet), it will arrive in Europe later this summer.

The “D” is for diesel. And if you’re thinking, “Oooo, a stinky, soot emitting diesel” you would be wrong. In addition to achieving a better-than-60 U.S. m.p.g. (3.9 L/100 km) rating, the Mini D’s carbon dioxide tailpipe emissions are 104 g/km — a figure that, not incidentally, matches the cleaner-than-thou Prius.

And it’s not just the Mini D that can achieve hybrid-like fuel consumption and emissions without asking owners to sacrifice traditional car ownership expectations.

By way of stop-and-start technologies, sophisticated aerodynamics or the use of low weight materials, European-only cars like BMW’s 118 D, Volkswagen’s Polo Bluemotion or Peugeot 107 are not only mean with fuel, but also green.

Hybrids have been perceived as a panacea to our planet’s non-renewable energy and dirty skies crisis. But they’re really only one solution. There needs to be a greater variety of “green” vehicles that can meet the diversity of people’s needs, which would have a further-reaching positive environmental impact.

As a more mainstream solution that’s cheaper to own, and more fun to drive, maybe we can look at what Honda will be replacing its Accord hybrid with in 2009: an ultra clean 2.2-litre D-I-E-S-E-L.

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