April 16, 2006
Hybrid Cars Not Always More Fuel Efficient

Jamie Lincoln Kitman, New York bureau chief for Automobile Magazine, argues in a New York Times article that for some hybrids are so large they are still big fat pigs.

Lately, right-minded people have been calling me and telling me they're thinking about buying the Lexus 400H, a new hybrid S.U.V. When I tell them that they'd get better mileage in some conventional S.U.V.'s, and even better mileage with a passenger car, they protest, "But it's a hybrid!" I remind them that the 21 miles per gallon I saw while driving the Lexus is not particularly brilliant, efficiency-wise hybrid or not. Because the Lexus 400H is a relatively heavy car and because its electric motor is deployed to provide speed more than efficiency, it will never be a mileage champ.

Kitman points out that federal, state, and local proposals and enacted laws that give preferences to hybrids in tax rebates, high occupancy vehicle lane access, and other advantages are rewarding some drivers who buy big hybrids at the expense of those who buy much more fuel efficient smaller vehicles. Right he is.

Kitman also points out that for highway driving hybrids provide little or no benefit.

The car that started the hybrid craze, the Toyota Prius, is lauded for squeezing 40 or more miles out of a gallon of gas, and it really can. But only when it's being driven around town, where its electric motor does its best and most active work. On a cross-country excursion in a Prius, the staff of Automobile Magazine discovered mileage plummeted on the Interstate. In fact, the car's computer, which controls the engine and the motor, allowing them to run together or separately, was programmed to direct the Prius to spend most of its highway time running on gasoline because at higher speeds the batteries quickly get exhausted. Indeed, the gasoline engine worked so hard that we calculated we might have used less fuel on our journey if we had been driving Toyota's conventionally powered, similarly sized Corolla which costs thousands less. For the owner who does the majority of her driving on the highway, the Prius's potential for fuel economy will never be realized and its price premium never recovered.

People who buy a Prius who do little driving aren't doing themselves any favors either. If you drive just a few thousand miles per year or mostly on the highway then you'd be better off spending the price premium of a Prius on solar hot water heating or photovoltaic panels. Or you could opt for better home insulation via a number of methods such as more fiberglass insulation material, caulking up leaks (which is a cheap thing to do), and dual pane or even triple pane argon windows. Or replace old appliances and your hot water heater with the most efficient models on the market.

Still, if people want to spend their money on a hybrid then as long as there is not a tax incentive for doing so then why not? Others spend their money on trips to Nepal or turning their small homes into McMansions or buying a large SUV and driving it cross country. A hybrid is just another way to conspicuously consume (and I just saw a Prius with a bumper sticker that said "Question Consumption!" - oh the irony). But if your goal is truly to reduce your fossil fuels energy consumption you ought to take a wider ranging look to find the most cost effective ways you might accomplish that.

One question which a reader has raised: How much energy does it take to make the Nickel Metal Hydride batteries used in hybrids? How long does it take for a hybrid to save enough energy to make back the cost of the batteries? Anyone know?

Similarly, a friend asks how much energy does it take to make solar photovoltaic panels and how long does it take for the panels to earn back the energy used to produce them and to produce the costs of shpping and installing them and their support equipment? Anyone know?

Share |      Randall Parker, 2006 April 16 11:45 AM  Energy Transportation

Wolf-Dog said at April 16, 2006 3:02 PM:

It is probably not the cost of "energy" to manufacture the nickel based batteries that is making these expensive, but the manufacturing and raw materials.

Here is a discussion of Nickel Metal Hydride batteries:
Here is a summary of the advantages and limitations of nickel-metal hydride batteries:


* 30-40% higher capacity than standard nickel-cadmium. Nickel-metal-hydride has potential for yet higher energy densities.
* Less prone to memory than nickel-cadmium - fewer exercise cycles are required.
* Simple storage and transportation - transport is not subject to regulatory control.
* Environmentally friendly - contains only mild toxins; profitable for recycling.


* Limited service life - the performance starts to deteriorate after 200-300 cycles if repeatedly deeply cycled.
* Relatively short storage of three years. Cool temperature and a partial charge slows aging.
* Limited discharge current - although nickel-metal-hydride is capable of delivering high discharge currents, heavy load reduces the battery's cycle life.
* More complex charge algorithm needed - nickel-metal-hydride generates more heat during charge and requires slightly longer charge times than nickel-cadmium. Trickle charge settings are critical because the battery cannot absorb overcharge.
* High self-discharge - typically 50% higher than nickel-cadmium.
* Performance degrades if stored at elevated temperatures - nickel-metal-hydride should be stored in a cool place at 40% state-of-charge.
* High maintenance - nickel-metal hydride requires regular full discharge to prevent crystalline formation. nickel-cadmium should be exercised once a month, nickel-metal-hydride once in every 3 months.

But note that the recycling is obligatory because nickel is also toxic in the long run, even though less bad than cadmium. But there is no question that a global recycling industry can be built if these nickel batteries.

Although Lithium, by itself, is not too bad, the Lithium based batteries often contain other dangerous compounds like Cobalt, and these batteries also need to be recycled.

In any case, the pure electric cars are just a few years away, as soon as the batteries are made a little more efficient and cheaper.

Tom said at April 16, 2006 7:24 PM:

Comparing a Prius with a Corolla isn't really fair - the Prius is significantly larger, at least in terms of passenger space. It's more comprable to a Camry. (It is slightly shorter than a Corolla, but wider, and with more legroom, shoulder room, etc.)

I'm not sure I agree totally with the main point of the article, either. Hybrids make the most economic sense in larger vehicles, assuming that people are looking for specifically sized vehicles. Bringing a 15MPG vehicle to 20MPG saves twice as much gas as taking a 30MPG vehicle to 40MPG. Similarly, hybrids make sense in increasing performance, assuming people are looking for a specific level of performance, because it means they end up with the same performance in a smaller engine. No, someone with a Hummer hybrid (if one existed) shouldn't feel all high, mighty, and green, but maybe a slight bit less guilty than a regular Hummer owner. But a Accord hybrid owner can feel pretty good - he gets a car with slightly better economy than the 4 banger Accord (which is efficient for a midsize), with better performance than a 6.

Randall Parker said at April 16, 2006 7:46 PM:


I wondered about the Corolla comparison as well.

But I feel you are missing his point: At the level of public policy rewarding the purchase of hybrids (e.g. with tax breaks, HOV lane access, etc) ends up rewarding the purchasers of large hybrids. Some of those purchasers of large hybrids would have otherwise bought smaller cars. Or he would have bought a conventional car with a smaller engine in order to economise (e.g. the 4 banger rather than the 6 banger Accord). It is hard to see the public interest here in rewarding large hybrid purchasers.

Now, take away the government incentives then, yes, for some people the purchase of a large hybrid SUV might make more sense than the purchase of a large non-hybrid SUV.

Also, as I pointed out, at the level of public policy ther are other ways to incentivize conservation and some of those other ways are a lot more cost effective. For example, in some areas solar hot water pays back in 5 to 7 years according to some accounts I've read.

AA2 said at April 16, 2006 11:07 PM:

In fairness I think the government is just trying to push this technology in hopes of the technology ultimately moving America off its dependence on foreign oil.

Another option is to say anything over 40mpg gets xx% of the cost up to a maximum of xxxxx$, written off your taxes. Then to get really fancy, 2 years from now bump it to 42mpg. And 4 years bump it up to 44mpg.

(of course this is the same government that gets tremendous taxes in the form of gasoline taxes, so how much really is it in their interests?)

odograph said at April 17, 2006 7:55 AM:

It makes a great deal of difference where you are, when you start to compare hybrid energy savings to others. I live in coastal California and need neither heating (only ran the house heat 3 days last winter) not air conditioning. OK, the not running the heater thing was a little bit of an experiment, to see how well my body adjusted to a natural temperature house (not colder than 51F when I woke, and generally 64F by afternoon).

For me, my gasoline costs (without a hybrid) would be my largest energy expense each month.

For anyone else, hey what's biggest? Your electric bill? Your natural gas bill? Or you gasoline bill?

Alan Njeru said at April 17, 2006 8:34 AM:

If a mode of propulsion consumes so much space or resources then it lacks a very vital attribute: propulsive object. Certain technologies no matter how advanced or interesting they may seem inherently lack this object. Hydrogen is a good example: without high pressures or ultra low temperatures, which by themselves consume energy the fuel tank is bound to be the size of a tanker just to power a litle car. Unless they find a way to increase the capacity of certain batteries you'll still have a bulky space consuming battery, that by the way consumes energy to carry around. Imagine a fat person competing against a skinny one. The odds hugely favor the skinny one. That's why long distance athletes are thin. Equally race car drivers cannot go past a certain weight. Extra weight makes sure that the car takes longer to stop, condumes more fuel and takes longer to accellerate.

Due to this factor something like diesel that may seem as if it may be culpruble of heavy pollution still reigns supreme. Diesel has a very high energy content in relation to other fuels. This implies that it more efficient and a gallon will take you further than anything else out there.

S. Stock said at April 17, 2006 12:32 PM:

Quote from original NYT article:
"For the owner who does the majority of her driving on the highway, the Prius's potential for fuel economy will never be realized..."

I'm a 2005 Prius owner who recently took my car on a 5,700 mile road trip across the US. I kept a very detailed mileage log that revealed an average of 44.76 MPG for the trip, with 5,000 of those miles on the highway. These figures are calculated from both the on-board computer and actual fill-ups to ensure accuracy. The driving conditions varied: mountains at 6,000 feet, at sea level, in freezing weather, in desert heat. My wife and I drive with a lead foot at 70-80 MPH.

I challenge anyone to find a conventional car that will get that kind of highway mileage.

odograph said at April 17, 2006 1:52 PM:

I get a little better than that in my Prius, but I only go 65 or 70 ;-)

Randall Parker said at April 17, 2006 5:03 PM:


I did a bit of googling and came up with this from a VW Jetta diesel owner:

Although I'm a bit of a leadfoot and compete in SCCA events, my lifetime average economy over 195,000-miles is nearly 43-mpg. I can get over 50-mpg simply by DRIVING THE SPEED LIMIT. My best tank without AC is 802-miles on 14.58-gallons, yielding 55-mpg.

Maybe E-P will chime in with his VW Jetta TDI diesel experiences.

Also see a US government most efficient vehicle list by category. Note that the list leaves out some high efficiency cars beacuse they are second most efficient in their category.

deb colomb said at April 17, 2006 7:46 PM:

I have owned my Prius for 6 months. I have taken several trip from SoCal to NoCal. I get 47-52 mpg on these trips driving 70+. In my hilly section of San Diego county I get closer to 43-44 because of some real short trips and the hills.

My Prius is not a Corolla, not even close. I would not have bought a Corolla or a Gen I Prius. My son-in-law is 6'5" and fits into my Prius nicely. I am over 250 and very comfy. There is massive space in this car.

My insurance is lower than my old Sport Trac. It takes me less than half the time to actually fill up the tank and instead of doing this 2x week,I can do it once ever 10-14 days. I have tire rotation and oil change every 5000. That is it. No transmission service, no brake service (at 25000 my Sport Trac already needed a brake job). My Prius not only saves gas but it also puts out way less emissions. No one is choking on my fumes. Can you imagine what it is like to use the Smart Key System? Can you imagine how nice it is to simply accelerate without any jerky engine shifting.

Hybrid prejudice is a wild concept but it exists, I see it very often in my travels. If people really got smarter about what and how they drive the oil companies might find it difficult to post billion dollar profits while people struggle to get from Point A to Point B.

wcw said at April 17, 2006 11:52 PM:

Oil companies will not find it difficult to post profits. If you don't burn the petroleum, China and India will.

That said, I do not understand why our host continues to be exercised about hybrids. Who cares why people buy which car? You've got no ethos complaining about the Prius and not about Porsche. US consumers spent a comparable amount on each in 2005 (~0.02% of GDP), and Porsches hardly present a return on their extra cost, do they?

Me, I think the Prius is a nice little vehicle, though I can't get away from the value proposition of the used market.

If I may make a request, please restrain yourself from hobbyhorses like this. Nuclear power? Let's have at it. Energy expenditures are >8% of GDP. That's good stuff. The Prius? 0.02% of GDP is, to be charitable, peanuts. The whiff of annoying carping doesn't help.

Out of curiosity, what do you drive, and why?

Peter Rintels said at April 18, 2006 4:31 AM:

Would second the comments about the diesels. I also own a Jetta diesel and get high 30's around town, high 40's on the highway for mileage. Nice peppy car, too. I chose this over the hybrid for pretty much all the reasons cited in the article. Just seemed to make more sense. Unfortunately, I have a hard time believing the market for diesels is going to go anywhere until you can register them in New York, Massachusetts and California. (I live in Rhode Island; among New England states, only New Hampshire and Connecticut allow them.) My impression is that the current emissions technology makes this overly restrictive and probably due for change, as will cleaner diesel in the coming years. I remain surprised how little press diesels get. Probably also the New York, Massachusetts, California problem again.

odograph said at April 18, 2006 6:54 AM:

Hey Randall, I thought I already gave you this link to real world mileage results. You can compare hybrids to diesels there.

I have owned a few VWs. A '76 Scirocco, an '81 Scirocco, an '84 Rabbit GTI. Considering that the '81 was totalled around me, after I was rear-ended by a semi full of scrap metal (!), crushing 2 feet off the back, and 1 foot off the front as it was pushed into the next car ... and I walked away ... I love VW engineering.

That said though, I did repair my VWs a bit more than I do my Japanese cars. I checked in with VW guys before buying again recently ... and they tell me the situation hasn't changed tremendously. Looking it up in my Consumer Reports, I also see that the used car reliability charts are a little "blacker" and a little "less red" than the Toyotas, etc. (See pg. 93, April 2006)

I love VW design (and safety obviously!) ... but maintenance could use a little work.

Randall Parker said at April 18, 2006 3:35 PM:


Respond to what I actually said:

Still, if people want to spend their money on a hybrid then as long as there is not a tax incentive for doing so then why not?

I'm bitching about stupid government interventions in the energy market. Stuff with emotional appeal or ADM and farmers lobbying for it gets way more money. Stuff that is more cost effective gets little attention.

Tom said at April 18, 2006 6:02 PM:

"Another option is to say anything over 40mpg gets xx% of the cost up to a maximum of xxxxx$, written off your taxes. Then to get really fancy, 2 years from now bump it to 42mpg. And 4 years bump it up to 44mpg."

This would make efficient cars cheaper, thereby encouraging people to buy them. However, by making cars cheaper, it also has the perverse incentive of encouraging people to drive in the first place, rather than taking public transit.

If we want to reduce the usage of gasoline, it seems a better route to simply tax gasoline more. If we were worried about progressivity, the money could always be used to increase the personal exemption, decrease payroll taxes, etc. Can't see that one getting through Congress, unfortunately.

odograph said at April 18, 2006 7:01 PM:

For what it's worth, I should mention that I think all energy credits are silly at best, and dangerous market distortions at worse.

I agree that taxes (be they gas taxes, fossil fuel taxes, or carbon taxes) would be much more sensible. Especially given that we have a debt rich, rather than cash rich, government. The oft-quoted polls that people would support gas taxes more "when they will not be used to pay off the deficit" are absurd. Imagine giving a son or nephew a cash gift and making him promise not to use it to pay his debts, but only to start new expenditures!

We have an out of control deficit and a fossil fuel problem, taxes work in the right direction. Credits work on one problem while exacerbating the other.

AA2 said at April 18, 2006 10:22 PM:

Although I'm not usually in favor of more taxes, an argument can be made because of national security. If its true that a percentage of the military budget is spent to help secure oil to America.. Then that cost should be put on the oil in the form of taxes at the pump.

Instead of taxing people's income or capital, many of whom may be using little oil themselves.

prius owner and loving it said at April 26, 2006 4:19 PM:

I am getting 48mpg.. and LOVING it!
We also drive smarter not faster..
It also has almost zero emissions..
and our car has been getting better gas mileage not worse..
It's about the environment stupid.
I spent 21,000 for my prius 2005.
Whoopee!! That is so much more than other cars.
I don't get the argument at all.
For one thing, a lot of cars are that price and your gas mileage sucks so who is ahead?
I pay 25.00 right now to fill up and I fill up twice a month. I also get a break from my work because I carpool.
Figure it out and stop making excuses for yourselves.
It's the future. Deal.

anon said at June 24, 2007 6:57 PM:

I don't know what the author of this article is smoking, but...

I average 46.5 MPG on my 2003 Civic Hybrid, mostly highway driving. Also, I recently drove ~500 miles and my roundtrip average was 52 MPG; again, this was mostly highway driving, and with the A/C on to boot.

Danny Stephens said at July 11, 2007 3:40 PM:

I drive a vw golf tdi and I got a bunch of stuff from http://www.parleysdieselperformance.com/site/988369/page/703468 and I am getting about 50 and I drive like an idiot around town and the speed limit on the freeway. I love the vw diesels.

Jim said at September 18, 2008 8:55 AM:

What I dont understand about it all is the H Y P E over the hybrids. Is it because the gas prices have risen and people are looking and thinking this is the best alternative, with huge batteries and more waste as these die.

What happened to the cars of the past, maybe some of you will remember, as I do that 40mpg, is no astounding feat. Honestly I know that civics were doing that in the 70s during the so called first gas crunch. cvcc's and civic getting in upwards of 35-40 mpg. So what I would like to know is now that we have grown how is it that we cant make that same car today?

Why does it have to be hybrid? I say its to make you buy what they want and before you alls start yelling conspiracy screamer honestly think and listen. I find it hard to believe that auto makers have not come so far in the past 40 years that they cannot make a clean burning fuel efficient car that gets 40+ mpg

I know that in the 90s thought it wasnt popular, GM made the Geo Metro. In upwards of 50mpg. So, why now do we need hybrids? I dont see any added benefit, less it costs much more for not really a huge gain.

I also want to state that Im a car guy as well, I have a classic vehicle that gets 35mpg on the highway, while still producing 300hp at the wheels. Its all in what you put into it, I have an aftermarket ECU that controls it all, the car runs better then its ever ran and is to me for sake of argument fuel efficient.

Just makes you think what the auto makers are putting out there, to make you pay a premium for, when you could do a lot yourself to make your own vehicl if properly tuned more efficient then what it is. Not to mention that 40mpg is not really that great when Honda was doing it back in the day.

Meh Im off my soap box

Oh heres a little link for you


Randall Parker said at September 18, 2008 6:08 PM:


That 50 mpg Geo Metro had crash characteristics that are way way worse than what you get in terms of safety features in the compacts of today. Therefore the cars of today weigh substantially more.

Also, the cars of today accelerate faster. People were willing to put up with way slower acceleration when gasoline was really expensive. Now gas is going to become expensive enough again that smaller engines will become acceptable as long as they boost fuel mileage enough.

Mal said at December 6, 2009 10:19 PM:

The environment to all those greenie/Do gooders will cycle along just nicely, whether or not you drive a poofters car or not. Carbon is needed in the world, oceans and trees just to name a few need it. If you look at what man has contributed with carbon emissions, it's like pouring a glass of water into the ocean in terms of effect. What happens to the batteries once they expire??? Do we bury them in a mountain somewhere, everything has a beginning and an end. Humans won't be here forever, the world will carry on, buying a vehicle because some car company is spinning its crap is just stupid. Do some research and see what I'm talking about, wake up, scare mongering has gone into overdrive and idiots are following it like the sand in the see. Now, I'm going to jump into my 7.2 liter dodge challenger and go for a drive, I might stop somewhere and have a large steak and, smoke a stogie while I'm at it too. Last time I checked I still have my balls, you ladies out there should grow a pair for fucks sake..!

Graham Langford said at January 12, 2014 10:37 AM:

I drive a Chrysler Sebring diesel in the UK. It averages 50mpg overall, does 55mpg cruising at 70mph and on a trial I did 60mpg by restricting speed to 60mph. In the USA you would easily duplicate these figures given the types of roads that you have and the driving styles that are common over there.

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