I drove my first hybrid car at Fiat in 1980. It was a crude and noisy diesel-electric prototype built without benefit of modern computer technology. I found it unlovable in many ways, but came away convinced that gasoline-electric or diesel-electric hybrids would be a far better answer to the hue and cry for more economical, more environmentally friendly automobiles than pure electrics. The current state of pure electric automotive technology has in no way changed my mind. However, I am also convinced that hybrids are automotive technology’s equivalent of the prop-jet aircraft of three or four decades ago-a useful, effective, and temporary compromise that will serve until the real thing comes along.I’ve been driving a Honda Accord hybrid for a week. Today at lunchtime, I filled it with gasoline and set out on a carefully monitored drive of 57.8 miles-50 percent interstate, 40 percent two-lane country roads, and 10 percent high-density urban traffic. I drove at the local speed limits and indulged in no full-throttle acceleration. On the two-lane road back to town, the average was an indicated 32.6 mpg, and the cumulative average actually improved in traffic. The Accord’s real-time fuel-economy gauge sometimes showed consumption numbers between 60 and 80 mpg, raising my hopes considerably, but as I returned to the parking lot behind my office and rolled to a stop, the computer told me I had averaged a more modest 33 mpg for the journey.
Thirty-three mpg is pretty impressive in a car as fast and comfortable (and good-looking) as my fully optioned test car, but $32,505 is a fairly stiff sticker price, and the owner may never save enough money on fuel to offset the going-in retail tariff. Herein lies the basic hybrid dilemma: How much are you willing to pay for a car that will earn brownie points for saving the planet but offers no real bottom-line inducement beyond an endlessly intriguing driving experience?
Driving the Accord hybrid is a revelation, particularly for those with no hybrid experience. It is so smooth, so quiet, and so fast that you immediately begin to speculate about owning one. The data screen in the center of the instrument panel is almost hypnotic in its ever-changing delivery of information pertaining to the interface among the gasoline engine, the electric motor, the battery, and the regenerative braking system. Honda’s strategy is to use the electrical power as a sort of booster.
This is very different from the Toyota approach, in which the electrical and internal-combustion power are smoothly and harmoniously integrated. In urban low-speed operation, the Honda driveline sometimes bucks and shakes slightly as the computer tries to make up its mind about which power format might be optimal. The Toyota system, on the other hand, is as smooth and transparent as glass.
The differing technological strategies practiced by Honda and Toyota are mirrored in their marketing strategies. Honda originally came to market with the Insight, a strange little coupe that looked as if it might have fallen off “The Highway of the Future” at the 1939 New York World’s Fair. It had no space for anything but two occupants, it ran on skinny little tires, and it was interesting only because of its then-unique powerplant. Honda next attempted to invigorate the program by moving its hybrid technology into an anonymous Honda Civic. The equally anonymous Accord hybrid is the latest result of that thinking. It is as though Honda were a little embarrassed by the over-the-top Insight and doesn’t want to make that mistake again.
Meanwhile, Toyota came along with the Prius, which had lots of space for people and stuff and did not look like something from a Saturday-morning Japanese cartoon show. It looked just different enough to always be quickly identifiable for what it was-a “What a good boy am I” attempt on its owner’s part to be seen keeping the world green for future generations. Thus, while Honda struggled to get out from between the two stools where it had fallen, each Prius on the road became an effective piece of advertising for its owner’s and Toyota’s impeccably good intentions.
One of my gurus has told me that the hybrid Lexus RX400h is even better and more sophisticated than the Toyota Prius, and that I can expect to be stunned by its sheer competence. Hell, I was stunned by the Accord hybrid. I’m a pushover.