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Larger Hybrid Cars Not More Fuel Efficient

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For the past seven years, I’ve been driving a stereotypical suburban mother’s car: a minivan. We bought it when I was pregnant with our first child, having decided that my ten-year-old Dodge Daytona — my very first car — with its two long, heavy doors, impossible-to-use “passive restraint” seat belts, and low frame that had you practically sitting on the pavement, would be to our disadvantage once my belly popped, not to mention once the baby arrived.

A few years ago, after being trapped in the soul-sucking minivan for a few years, I decided that my next car would be a convertible. I knew I’d be over 40 years old when I got it, but that was part of my rationale: drive the minivan for as many years as possible so that when it’s time for the next car, the kids will be older and we won’t need quite so much soccer mom space in the back.

My husband basically shoved reality back in my face. “They don’t make convertible minvans,” he said, pointing out that my next car will still need to be a minivan. I tried to fight back with, “I know,” meaning that I wasn’t planning to get a minivan. But my husband and I both knew better: I’m probably stuck in a minivan for at least on more go-round at the car dealer.

Aside from wanting to drive something just slightly more cool, I also want to drive something slightly more “green.” So we have since concluded that I’ll be driving my current minivan at least until some hybrid minivans come on the market. If I’m going to be stuck in another mom-mobile for ten more years, I’ve told myself, at least I’ll be driving a car that will help decrease emissions and our country’s dependence upon foreign oil. I’ve been living with that happy assumption for about two years now.

Today, I learned that my assumption is wrong. According to a story in the New York Times, larger hybrid cars aren’t significantly more fuel efficient than their non-hybrid counterparts. Instead, they’re significantly more powerful. The hybrid engine is being used in larger and higher end cars to provide more power when accelerating, to “get more work out of a gallon of gasoline,” rather than to cut back on the number of gallons used.

According to the NY Times:

The 2005 Honda Accord hybrid gets about the same miles per gallon as the basic four-cylinder model, according to a review by Consumer Reports, a car-buyer’s guide, and it saves only about two miles a gallon compared with the V-6 model on which it is based. Thanks to the hybrid technology, though, it accelerates better.

The Accord hybrid is not alone in using technology for power; the Toyota Highlander and the Lexus RX330, two premium vehicles, both gained horsepower when they were produced as hybrids. When Lexus created a hybrid version of the RX330 it kept the same 3.3-liter engine, but to get across the idea that the hybrid had as much power as a vehicle with a 4-liter engine it named it the RX400h.

Cars like the Honda Insight and the Toyota Prius are still available for people who want to buy a car primarily for its fuel economy. But these cars are much smaller than what I need. The Insight is only a two-seater. And even though the Prius a five-seater, it’s still a small car.

I want a car with the size and features of a minivan, but with Insight- and Prius-like fuel economy. I don’t expect to get 70 miles per gallon in a minivan, but I would like to get 40 or 45. I don’t need to accelerate faster; I’m used to a car that can’t get off the line quickly. I want fuel efficiency and size.

The problem with large cars IS their fuel consumption. Why won’t car makers actually produce cars that are both fuel efficient and a larger size? Why do they always opt for increasing POWER over fuel economy? Because that’s what Americans really want. They wouldn’t make them if they couldn’t sell them. For all of our talk about ending our dependence on foreign oil, we sure are unwilling to give up a single convenience to get it.

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About bhw

  • JR

    Why won’t car makers actually produce cars that are both fuel efficient and a larger size?

    Um… physics?

  • Ten more years, huh? Guess again. With a kid in college, we need the minivan more than ever. I’m on my second Dodge Caravan, and I hate to say this, (because my fantasy car is a BMW M3) but I have grown fond of the damn thing. It’s comfortable. My husband took out the factory installed radio and replaced it with a CD player. We use it for everything and take it everywhere. I am disappointed to hear that the hybrids aren’t any more fuel efficient, though – I was seriously considering one as my next car purchase.

  • bhw

    JR, the article implied that better fuel efficiency is possible, but that car makers are choosing to add power instead of eeeking out whatever improved fuel economy they can.

    I don’t expect minivans to be as efficient as smaller cars, but they can be more efficient than they are.

  • td

    They’d probably make one if you asked.

    But everytime you fill up your car with gas, you have to promise to also fill up a bucket and then dump the bucket down the drain.

    But hey, at least emissions would go down.

    As far as I can see, car makers are in a real tight spot. Making cost comparative, fuel efficient hybrids will satisfy the market and sell more cars. But if the market is flooded with hybrids too quickly then oil consupmtion will drop. If oil consumption drops the oil companies will increase the price to offset their losses. If you increase the price of Oil, the cost of manufacturing increases because nobody has developed hybrid production machines. Which in turn increases the cost of making cars.

    Throw in all the political issues, and the broader economic issues, and it’s a complete friggin mess. Which is probably why car companies are only willing to sell efficient hybrids to specific market niches.

  • The big problem as I see it is that every fuel-efficient car made is criticized for being underpowered, and the car-makers are trying to avoid the label.

  • Have you looked at the Ford Escape? It’s seriously underpowered, so I assume that the result is greater fuel efficiency from its hybrid engine.


  • bhw

    I think the Escape is an SUV, though. In spite of my protestations, I actually do want a minivan. It’s a completely different car from an SUV.

  • The Escape isn’t very ‘sporty’, though. It’s a lot like a minivan. Unless you need seating for more than 3 kids it should be just about as effective for the job.


  • Bennett

    “Have you looked at the Ford Escape? It’s seriously underpowered.”

    Heh, what a great name though… Named after a middle class vacation no doubt, less bang, more bucks.

    I with bwh, who cares how fast it accelerates?

    Wait a minute, last year I was shopping for a car with my gentle leader and was impressed by the Passat vs the Jetta. Why you ask? The extra space? The leather seats?

    No and no. The Passat freakin’ zoomed!. The Jetta zooms, but holly molly, the 6 cyl. Passat was wicked.

    But seriously, we live in the country so “on ramp acceleration” is not an issue for us. She got the Jetta, because she wanted a Jetta…

  • TBJ

    You have only 1 kid and need a minivan? WTF. I just think it is not necessarry to have such a big car with the excuse of having only one kid.

    What a waste of gasoline.

  • It’s not the 1 kid, TBJ, it’s all the crap you have to carry around from time to time when you have a kid. Plus you’ve got to have 4 doors, because it’s torturous to try to put a kid in a car seat in 2 door.


  • Jayson

    Hey, I own a Honda Civic Hybrid and we get per the fuel savings gauge (average 32 MPG) not the 48-50MPG advertised. I also own a 99′ Isuzu Rodeo, which I use for hauling stuff. I am very dissapointed with the fuel economy with the hybrid, but would buy another one in a flash! No one ever talks about the other issue… (emissions) these are supposed to be very GREEN cars with the asthma rates soaring… We in the Phoenix,AZ area need pollution relief. GREEN has got to be in style FOR OUR HEALTH AND FUTURE GENERATIONS THAT ARE SUFFERING FOR OUR GREED FOR SPEED. Hey if you get there 2 minutes later WTF…AMEN… Jayson

  • Sorry, but we will not in the foreseeable future have a 4500 pound minivan or SUV which achieves 40-45 MPG in the USA. There is a small minivan in Japan which does 44 MPG, but it is not “safety qualified” for the USA.

    Larger hybrids are STILL MORE FUEL EFFICIENT than the comparable NON-Hybrid version of the same vehicle. So that IS an improvement and it IS PROGRESS.

    Such progress should not be poo-pooed or discounted, but instead applauded. (clapping sounds)

  • Jayson – did you buy your hybrid car in AZ while the monsterous tax breaks were still in effect?

  • JR

    Dave Nalle: It’s not the 1 kid, TBJ, it’s all the crap you have to carry around from time to time when you have a kid. Plus you’ve got to have 4 doors, because it’s torturous to try to put a kid in a car seat in 2 door.


    Man, parents these days are pussies. And their kids are spoiled rotten.

  • You shoulda seen me driving across country…from san diego to syracuse in a beretta with 2 kids!

  • Actually, Dave’s right, it’s no fun to put a wriggling toddler into a back seat in a 2-door car. As a minivan owner with one kid, there were plenty of times when the car was full of kids – you do have to take a turn at car pool whether you have a minivan or not – and now that he’s grown, we still use the van for all sorts of things – carting home building materials and gardening supplies from Home Depot, moving his stuff back and forth to school, etc.

  • You could always put the kids in the trunk..I heard that works…as long as the cops don’t see you!

  • JR

    andy marsh: You shoulda seen me driving across country…from san diego to syracuse in a beretta with 2 kids!

    Now THAT’s the kind of road trip I grew up with. Having your limbs lock up from being wedged in one position for hours at a time, what could be more fun than that?

  • here’s the best part…my youngest…almost 15 now…was what we affectionately called a rocker…and it wasn’t because of her music choices…although…daddy did teach her right…she would sit in the back and bounce off the back seat…one day…I stopped the car…couldn’t figure out what was wrong with my car!!!

    It was my daughter…rocking so hard it was making the car jump!

  • that’s almost 16! she’d kill me for that!

  • JR

    My dad occasionally took me around on the back of a motorcycle (no shortage of cars, it’s just that the majority of them usually didn’t run). When he’d lean into the corners, I’d see the road coming at me and lean away. So he’d have to lean even more into the corners. I eventually got a little lecture on how I wasn’t helping the situation.

  • DL

    This article is unbelievable. If all you want is economy, buy a small engined car and forget about hybrids!

    ALL hybrids are about performance, even the Prius and Insight. If you can live with the lousy performance of a gasoline-only Prius, take out the 500 pounds of hybrid stuff and putter around in your 75 horsepower car. The original Prius took 14 seconds to get to 60 MPH and people thought THAT was slow. Try it without electric assist…

    What a dope.

  • bhw

    If all you want is economy, buy a small engined car and forget about hybrids!

    But I said I want more than economy — I want a minivan’s size, too.

    ALL hybrids are about performance, even the Prius and Insight.

    Not really. Those cars are about fuel economy. If they weren’t, they wouldn’t be hybrids and they’d get 40-ish miles per gallon instead of 70-ish.

    Here’s what the NY Times article says about hybrids:

    Many people concerned with oil consumption, including President Bush and members of Congress, are pointing to hybrids – vehicles with electric motors as well as internal combustion engines – as a way to reduce fuel use and dependence on imported oil. The first ones to reach the market did that; the two-seat Honda Insight, introduced in December 1999, was rated at 70 miles per gallon, and it was followed by the five-seat Toyota Prius, also built for reduced fuel consumption. Those cars have no nonhybrid equivalents. Then came the Civic hybrid, designed to perform almost as well as the original, only using a lot less gasoline.

    Not such a dope after all, eh?

  • Current hybrids balance efficiency with power, that’s certainly true. If they were designed to maximize fuel efficiency they might be able to get over 100 miles per gallon, but they wouldn’t be much fun to drive.

    The industry wouldn’t have to worry much about demand for fuel dropping off too fast. Many people would still choose gas-guzzling SUVs even if a truly high efficiency vehicle came on the market.

  • Tim Ames

    I recently rented a Peugeot 206 with 2 litre diesel in France. It was 4 door and got 6.5l/100km [approx 50USmpg] when cruising at 120-150kph [74-93mph]and 6l/100kph in the towns.It did not accellerate very quickly but at about the rate of a minvan, at least. Europe has tons of 2 litre diesel engined station wagons and minivans [some with turbos and quite fast], as well as many with engines as small as 1.2 litres. These have less fuel consumption, cruise at speeds that most North Americans don’t even reach, and are comfortable for people with kids.
    So why can’t we buy them here [besides the fact we are stupid]? BTW: most cars in Europe are manual shift which gives more control and better fuel consumption.

  • mb

    The purpose of a hybrid is to improve performance, its basically taking a small engined car and making it able to keep up with your typical larger engined car. The reason for this is improved acceleration (due to electric motors which produce alot of torque).
    If hybrids were not used for performance they wouldn’t make any sense, you could just buy a 70’s volkswagen that gets 60-70 mpg , but you would have to wait 17sec to go from 0-60
    In short if ALL you need is fual economy, then you need a smaller engine. But since a very small engine in a minivan would make it almost unsafe (gettin up to speed) then a hybrid could make a VERY good alternative, better acceleration and a smaller engine to help with gas. Unfortunalty the market does not SEEM to be there, though i have a suspicion that “if you build it, they would buy it”


  • The Toyota Highlander Hybrid will get better mpg than any minivan on the market. However, I do agree that the hybrid technology should be used to focus on conserving fuel not improving horsepower. Side note:The Accord hybrid does not use a full hybrid technology like the Toyota hybrids do.

  • Robert Barr

    I own a Highlander hybrid. My MPG ranges from an average of 32.5 MPG over a week to 25.5 compared to less than 20 MPG in the non hybrid model. It all depends on how you drive. if you choose a more agressive driving style you will sacrifice MPG’s but the point is that you still have an option to save fuel ot to dominate in the fast lane. I see these models as needed to convince the general public that hybrids are a good thing and that going green doesn’t mean you have to drive the slowest car on the road (a dangerous position in which to be). Give the auto makers a break. The more they can move the public towards green technologies the faster we will get where we need to be; besides, driving an SUV with 270 HP when you need it or one that can get up to 35 MPG is just cool!!!

  • >>Give the auto makers a break.

    Hell no. Whatever else – they don’t deserve one. they could have EASILY done this 20 years ago.

  • gonzo marx

    what Temple said…

    the automakers in the US have long ruled on greed and short sighted devotion to this quarters bottom line

    this is directly proportional to how badly they have been spanked over the last 30 years by outside competition

    now you have companies, like the US Toyota plants, that are building their cars here, because they love the American workers productivity…and they produce efficient and innovative products

    nuff said?


  • Let the dinosaurs find a nice tar pit and lie down if they can’t evolve into birds.


  • gonzo marx

    sorry i can’t agree, Mr Nalle….

    i WANT those jobs for americans

    this means it is up to the marketplace forces, by means of the shareholders, to toss out the pinbrained greedheads from management…and find those that will implement the needed changes in corporate culture and structure

    there, that satisfies both market forces and good corporate citizenship

    will they do it?

    i ain’t betting on it…the future of cars in the world will probably NOT be dependent on the “big three ” from Detroit…more’s the pity

    start brushing up on your Japanese if you want ot be in on the innovation for the next generations

    your mileage may vary


  • Tyler

    What is it with you people wanting big gas guzzling minivans, trucks and cars? My parents drive a Honda CRV that gets usually over 34 MPG (Imperial units). Not to mention that we live in the middle of farm/ranch country 700 km away from the nearest city. Fitting two adults and three kids is never a problem on the six hour trips to the city. A Honda Civic or Toyota Prius should do quite well in the city for almost any family.

  • Hey, They have been making more fuel efficient minivans for years. They just refuse to sell you one in the U.S. Take a flight (or cruise) to Bermuda and hire a taxis to any hotel. Before you leave the taxi, that was likely a minivan, ask the driver what they average mpg in the city. Keep in mind their driving is all city. Thats right over 40 mpg city in a vehicle that holds 6-7 people and all your gear. Almost every vehicle there is powered by an ultra efficient turbo charged diesel. You are better off, and probobly more likely to succeed, trying to save on heating fuel. Consider an outdoor wood boiler or indoor unit. I have saved around 150 gallons of fuel per month doing it and saved money too.

  • >>sorry i can’t agree, Mr Nalle….

    i WANT those jobs for americans<< All of the Japanese auto manufacturers have been happy to open assembly plants here in the US and hire American workers. I'm all for encouraging them to do more of it. Dave

  • Heloise

    Hybrids burn MONEY not gas

    I just did the math and once again Rush is right. It will cost you 1K a year MORE to drive a hybrid especially the larger ones, or even the honda ones than an SUV (compact) or a regular car.

    Here’s the rub: less mass means LESS gas. That’s just physical. Honda Insight is the best on gas, but it’s also a postage stamp. Who wants to drive a postage stamp?

    Here’s the best advice: drive what the hell you want, be conservative about it, walk and bike more or if you live in a major city don’t own a car you will need all your money to pay for and to live in an all-white area!


  • djc365

    I think the way everything works and most of all of your arguements are stupid, if company’s wanted to change any thing they could, quickly. but first off like one person here said, the oil companies would raise thier prices. there is no higher demand now for oil then tyhere was back in the 80’s, mosts newer CARs’ get at LEAST 30 mpg hwy as opposed to maybe 18mpg with a v8 or 22mpg with a v6 back in an 80’s compact car. yes there are more dirvers but that isnt the point of feul consumption. the reason why hybrid cars are more effecient then regular one is because they use the electic motors with 2 gears, which gets you to what? 15-20 mph, true the batteries dont last too long on these cars but last time i checked, i can go 40mph on a city road that transitions from one block to another. so if these cars had about 2 more gears the engien could be on idle for that amount of period charging the batteries it wouldnt make much of a different but it would be a valid solution. also 4 clinder cars are dominating the economic cars, my sister resently bought a 5 speed manual scion tc with a 4 cly 160hp engine it gets about 33mpg on the highway, but it only has 5 gears.. i travel on the highway foing 65-70 hell even 80 mph safely but by then my motor is running at 4000rpm as aposed to the needed 800 to maintain speed.(or less if your engine doesnt stall which it probably wont all the way down to about 500-400 rpm) now, if i was at a lower rpm (lets say 800) going 80mph i would probably be in about 7 gears just to be safe (this is only 3 more gears then a conventional manual car) and even this would make it short gears for a car. i would proably get over 100mpg hell maybe even 130mpg because of the speed to rpm ratio, the reason for this is that it only requires 8 hp.. thats right EIGHT to maintain your speed on a highway, why dont the car makers do this..maybe they havent figured it out? it WOULD be cheaper to MAKE this way instead of a hybrid though it would be more expensive just because companies can do that. and the transmission would probably have to be bigger but thats besides the point. a 94′ 4 speed geo metro can get 75mpg hwy going 45 miles per hour with a 3cyl engine.. though this is INCREDIBLY slow for a highway and it takes a while to get to that speed on this car. there is no need to hybrid cars in america the morstly save money in crowded citys in which some new hybrid suvs get better city mileage then they do hwy mileage, as it is most americans take they highway which usually has constantly flowing traffic. my final sentance is, in city conditions hybrids are good because they start momentomn making the engine only work at lower rpms at speeds under 40mph, while cars on the highway already in motion just need a little more gearing to keep thier speed maintained at speeds higher then 45-50 mph which 50 is lower the the speedlimits on any highway, americans need higher gears where they will notice the mileage the most, not low geared motors that build momentomn for the cars that never need it for more then a few minutes of the day.

  • jb

    sometime in the 90’s or early 00’s, car makers started marketing based on power & speed. i had an ’88 toyota celica GT with around a 120HP engine and a 5spd manual transmission. it got 30+MPG city and nearly 40MPG on the highway. Celica’s today have bigger engines and get mileage in the 20’s. consumers forgot about the earlier gas crisis (remember the Iran hostage crisis?) and shifted their focus to 0-60 acceleration. play back car comercials from the past few years… “more power than the competition” “higher safety rating” are the taglines. Why? because that’s what their market research determined that consumers responded to. Over the past 12mos, you see more & more “highest fuel efficiency in its class” claims, again because their market research shows that’s what we respond to. You want the car companies to build more efficient cars? Then buy the most fuel efficient models there are now. As the gas guzzlers lose market share, they’ll build more efficient vehicles to regain share.

    Hybrids & fuel efficient vehicles will drive UP gas prices??? That’s the most bassackwards argument I’ve heard in a long time. Provided there’s some price elasticity in demand, prices fall as demand falls, prices rise as demand rises. Check out some economics 101. If fuel efficiency helps slow the pace of demand growth, gas prices will still rise as the cost of gathering oil will steadily increase (check for headlines about “new oil extraction technologies” in which oil companies now pay more to get oil out of sources that were cost prohibitive when oil prices were lower). Smart oil companies will realize that they are “Energy Companies” not “Oil Companies” and shift investment dollars to position themselves to win in the new energy market that will emerge.