Just the Better Mileage Please, Hold the Leather: Hybrid Upselling

You know the old saying that the more things change, the more they stay the same? As more and more car companies finally respond to our desire to kick the gas habit, many of them can’t seem to kick the habit of piling on luxury options to drive up the prices and the profits.

This can have the unfortunate effect of making the most affordable cars to drive the least affordable to buy. Fortunately, this is not always the case, as the  Hybrid Scorecard, a new research report by the Union of Concerned Scientists (UCS), shows. The report also attempts to unravel the confusion over whether the additional investment in a hybrid results in a commensurate level of improvement in the vehicle’s environmental performance. The scorecard, which UCS claims is the only comprehensive ranking of hybrid cars in the US, ranks hybrids based on three attributes: Environmental Score, Hybrid Value and Forced Features.

The environmental score looks at two attributes: global warming emissions (which is really the improvement in fuel economy when compared to the most similar non-hybrid car) and smog forming emissions. Smog forming emissions refer to the arcane-looking EPA designations you sometimes see on window stickers for things like LEV meaning Low Emission Vehicle or PZEV for Partial Zero-emission Vehicle. The best environmental performer is the Prius, followed by a tie between the Honda Civic and the Ford Fusion/Mercury Mariner. Lowest in this category is the Saturn Aura, whose “light hybrid” package has relatively little impact on fuel economy.

The Hybrid Value attribute measures how the vehicle purchase price is increased for each percentage point of improvement in fuel economy and emissions. The best cars, those rated Very High, such as the Toyota Prius and the Lexus HS 250h, realize these efficiency gains for less than $75 for each percent improvement. On the other hand, buyers of cars such as the Chevy Silverado Hybrid 2WD, will have to cough up somewhere between $225 and $300 for each additional efficiency percent point. A surprising number of cars achieved a High rating, which means their owners paid a modest $75-$150 for each percent of efficiency boost. These include Cadillac Escalade, Ford Focus, Toyota Camry, Honda Civic and the Lexus RX450h AWD.

Finally, the Forced Features attribute refers to the price of additional features that come bundled with the hybrid version of the car, which are not automatically included with the non-hybrid version. Two vehicles, the Honda Insight and the Saturn Vue Hybrid had a rating of None, which means that a base model of this vehicle is available for purchase which has the same features as the non-hybrid base model version of this car or equivalent. Cars like the Lexus L600h L and the Cadillac Escalade Hybrid extract additional costs in excess of $6000 for features that come bundled with the hybrid powertrain. Cars with a relatively low forced features rating (less than $1500) include: Chevy Silverado, Chevy Malibu, Lexus HS 250h, Lexus RX450h. Lexus GS 450h, Mercury Mariner, Saturn Aura and Toyota Highlander.

Readers can sort the ratings for each of these three attributes, though there is no overall rating. Considering that hybrids now occupy such a wide range of size, cost and vehicle type categories, this makes good sense.

Still, when all is said and done, buying a car is a largely a matter of personal opinion and different people (and magazines) have different opinions and different criteria.

US News & World Report ranked the Ford Fusion/Mercury Milan above the Prius, followed by the Toyota Camry and then the Honda Civic. Car and Driver also liked the Ford Fusion best in its comparison of four hybrid family sedans, which also included the Camry, Altima and Chevy Malibu.

It should be noted that fuel economy in this test accounted for only five points out of 250, compared with 25 points each for Fun to Drive and Gotta Have It, categories that some might consider subjective.

Finally, the American Council for an Energy-Efficient Economy (ACEEE) puts the Compressed natural gas powered Honda Civic CNG at the top of its list of green cars, followed by the Prius and the Civic Hybrid. The CNG Civic, while using more fuel per mile, emits less CO2 than any of the hybrids.

(Full disclosure:  Jen Boynton, 3p’s managing editor, also works for Union of Concerned Scientists.)

RP Siegel

RP Siegel, author and inventor, shines a powerful light on numerous environmental and technological topics. His work has appeared in Triple Pundit, GreenBiz, Justmeans, CSRWire, Sustainable Brands, PolicyInnovations, Social Earth, 3BL Media, ThomasNet, Huffington Post, Strategy+Business, Mechanical Engineering, and engineering.com among others . He is the co-author, with Roger Saillant, of Vapor Trails, an adventure novel that shows climate change from a human perspective. RP is a professional engineer - a prolific inventor with 52 patents and President of Rain Mountain LLC a an independent product development group. RP recently returned from Abu Dhabi where he traveled as the winner of the 2015 Sustainability Week blogging competition.Contact: bobolink52@gmail.com