Hybrid Cars: Hype or Hope?
LAN FAQ on Toyota Prius Hybrid
We bought a Prius this year. It replaced our former only car, an aged, tiny import. It’s been enough of a conversation starter since then that I feel compelled to answer some of the FAQs.
Do we like it? Yes, I’m happy that we got it, but it convinced me that what I really needed was a bike trailer, so I could do many of those around-town trips on kale and beans, instead of fossil fuels, even with the kids in tow. We chose a Burley DeLite, but I would probably have gone with a Chariot Cougar or Cabriolet had it been available.
Does it have enough power? Yes, I’m not driving the NASCAR circuit. It has as much power as our last car and more than some others I’ve driven. It’s not an electric car. It’s a gasoline-powered car with a electric generator that allows it conserve its own energy. Does it feel “muscular”? No, when I want to feel muscular, I do something strenuous with my own body, not a monocoque chassis.
Is it big enough? Yes, we can fit two kids, with car seats, and even squeeze in an extra passenger if we need to. It doesn’t have seating for 7 or space for a large pet. Toyota has had a hybrid minivan on the road in Japan since 2000, but doesn’t seem to be making any moves to bring it to the US market. (If you want to weigh in on that, here’s a link to a poll/petition for a domestic Sienna hybrid: http://www.hybridcars.com/toyota-sienna-minivan-hybrid.html. And the Scion and Mazda 5 both have reasonable-looking mileage for large capacity vehicles, but their emissions are pathetic.) My own thoughts have turned to the possibilities of an after-market hatchback change-out that would make the back more pet- or suitcase-friendly, either as a permanent or periodic fix, and a Jetson-esque reversible front passenger seat that would allow a parent chauffeur to cart around two kids with two friends without insisting that a minivan is essential equipment for living (don’t know yet about whether that would offer any greater crash safety for kids than sitting in the front seat which is now verboten).
What kind of mileage does it get anyway? The EPA ratings are officially 60mpg city and 55mpg highway. Everyone knows that those ratings are notoriously useless. The car does perform at its best under the conditions imposed by the test – engine hot, long duration driving at about 35 mph for city, with stops and starts, and at about 55 mph for highway. If you drive that way, the mileage is realistic. So, for example, if you live in an outer beltway suburb or LA and spend long periods of time driving between 30 and 40 mph either in freeway traffic or on exurb traffic lighted roadways, you will get very high mileage. Around here, taking 405 from Muncy to Lewisburg was the closest I’ve come to that; I got 58 mpg. And if you were to drive on the highway sticking rigorously to 55mph, 55mpg is perfectly realistic. But local driving conditions tend to be far different. We typically get around 46mpg city and 51 mpg highway. Probably the biggest variable is the cold start. Our “city” driving is rarely over 2 miles. Sadly, this is the most frequent type of trip we do, even after we got the bike trailer. Of course that means our old car was doing even worse, though I tend to think that the relative deficit of the cold start is greater for the hybrid. The absolute mileage remains far better however.
Not a FAQ, but rather a FSD (frequently stated declaration): We looked at the mileage ratings and decided it didn’t make sense for us; we don’t do much city driving. Typically when I hear this and I look at the vehicle chosen in the end, it’s clear that rational thinking did not prevail. While the Prius is capable of getting higher mileage in the city, its lower highway mileage is still far and away better than almost all the competition. There are a few exceptions, either in the form of tiny conventionally fueled cars, often not an option because of needs for more passenger or cargo space or something like a VW Jetta Turbodiesel. The Jetta TDI is championed by many and has great stats (see AutoWeek’s Earth Day driving comparison online), but has an atrocious emissions profile, whether from particulates, sulfur, greenhouse gases or other environmental pollutants. The Prius is better on emissions than the Jetta TDI by a factor of 10. Even if you run the Jetta on 20% biodiesel, it’s still environmentally outclassed by a factor of 6.
There are some who speak longingly of hybrid clean diesel technologies or pure battery, charged with photovoltaics (rather than high sulfur and mercury-laden coal-generated line current). For myself, I remain a devotee of non-automotive travel. In other words, my other car’s a bike. And since there is not yet full freedom of movement around here for those of us running on personal power, that means I also work actively to improve transportation options locally for all. Both riding and promoting bikes give me a real work out.