The hybrid age is coming to an end. Or at least, a new beginning. Soon, new hybrids will be plug-in and thus vastly more efficient than our current crop of machinery. And so now is a good time to ask the question: were hybrids an important technological stepping stone, or were they the 2000s’ equivalent of tailfins — a marketing device meant to connote futurism?
I acknowledge that all hybrids are not equal. The Chevy Malibu Hybrid, for instance, doesn’t really deserve the label. Calling that car a hybrid is like calling a woman with Lee Press-On Nails a cyborg.
In the past few years, just about every automaker rolled out a hybrid powertrain, which was seen as the unquestioned ticket to heroic fuel economy. But there was one dissenter, one loud voice in the crowd proclaiming that hybrids are silly. And I’m beginning to think that guy may have been right.
Nissan CEO Carlos Ghosn has compared hybrids to mermaids, saying, “If you want a fish, you get a woman; if you want a woman, you get a fish.” Most CEOs are afraid to publicly express such antimermaid sentiment, but not Ghosn. Don’t even get him started on unicorns, unless you want an earful about horses and narwhals.
Nissan’s only hybrid is the Altima, a car that was released with an air of resignation. I think the press materials said, “Even though hybrids are a waste of time, we’re going to license this thing from Toyota just to appease the ignorant swine of California, who think they’re smarter than our army of superintelligent engineers. But rest assured, the Leaf is gonna make this Altima look about as advanced as a ’68 Chevy Nova.” Or something like that. Nonetheless, the Altima Hybrid gets significantly better gas mileage than the conventional four-banger — at least, in the city.
But what if Nissan simply put the Altima on a diet and bequeathed it other fuel-saving methods, like perhaps a smaller, direct-injected engine? That less-is-more approach might deliver near-hybrid economy along with a zestier drive. Consider the fuel-miser version of the upcoming Chevy Cruze. It’s slated to deliver 40 mpg on the highway, but the spec sheet sounds so much cooler than a hybrid’s. It’s got a 138-hp turbo four-cylinder and a six-speed manual. It’s lowered and has forged wheels and a shutter behind the grille that opens and closes according to speed. That’s how I like my fuel economy — fewer CVTs, more turbos, forged wheels, and active aerodynamics.
BMW’s latest 7-series is another car that provides interesting perspective on the value of hybrids. That’s because BMW offers both a V-8 hybrid model and a six-cylinder version. The ActiveHybrid 7 and the six-cylinder 740i both manage a 20-mpg EPA combined rating. So what, then, is the point of the hybrid?
Well, it’s faster. I had the chance to drive both cars on the Lightning circuit at New Jersey Motorsports Park, and the hybrid owns the straightaways. With a twin-turbo V-8 and an electric motor, the ActiveHybrid’s 455 hp crushes the 740i’s modest 315 ponies, delivering a 0-to-60-mph time of 4.7 seconds versus 5.8 seconds for the six. But there’s a catch.
The ActiveHybrid 7 also weighs 451 pounds more than the 740i. You know what else weighs 450 pounds? A gorilla. A really big one. So the cars look identical, but one has a gorilla hiding inside it. And Newtonian physics says that gorillas don’t like to change direction, no matter what you may have seen at the ADHD gorilla pen down at the zoo.
So in the corners, the 740i slays the hybrid. Its tires sing while the hybrid’s groan. The ActiveHybrid pulls ahead on the straight, but in a standing-start lap, it was only a second and a half quicker over nearly two miles. And that’s on a horsepower track, where both cars averaged about 90 mph. If I robbed Tail of the Dragon National Bank and needed a getaway car, I’d choose the 740i over the ActiveHybrid 7.
Perhaps you’ll never actually use your 7-series to run the Dragon. Likewise, how often will you require sub-6.0-second 0-to-60-mph runs? In either car, you get that velvety, dreadnought-limousine, 7-series driving experience, so I’d call it a draw except that the ActiveHybrid 7 costs a bit more. As in, $32,150 more, which admittedly doesn’t account for the tax credit that ActiveHybrid customers get for being so environmentally friendly as to buy a car that says “hybrid” on it somewhere. Sorry, you earth-hating seal-clubber in your nonhybrid Ford Fiesta with the fuel-economy package (34 mpg combined) — no credit for you. And why don’t you just go nuke a rainforest while you’re at it?
Indeed, it’s a strange consequence of the hybrid mystique that we revere porky cars with batteries while paying little attention to vehicles that are trim and thrifty in the first place. I once drove a Chevy Tahoe Hybrid with a General Motors engineer riding shotgun. He told me how difficult it is to wring one additional mile per gallon out of a given vehicle, which makes the Tahoe hybrid system’s 25 percent gain seem like a silver bullet.
But the Tahoe Hybrid is like one of those obese people who gets kicked off The Biggest Loser early and never sheds as much weight as everyone else. At the end of the season, that guy’s managed to drop fifty pounds, but he’s still gigantic.
Yet that fat guy who loses some weight gets plenty of positive reinforcement, while there are no congratulations for the person who kept the weight off in the first place. That’s the case at the Chevy dealership, where the Tahoe Hybrid is covered with screaming green badges and honored with a $2200 tax credit, while the Chevy Traverse — bigger inside than the Tahoe and rated at 23 mpg highway with all-wheel drive — is just another SUV. It achieves better highway mileage than the hybrid, but because it does so in a less flashy way (lighter unibody construction and a direct-injected V-6), it doesn’t get the same attention.
I think this dynamic is about to change. In the near future, people who drive Toyota Priuses and Ford Fusion Hybrids will gravitate toward the new flagships of petrochemical parsimony, cars like the Nissan Leaf and the Chevy Volt. With that squeeze from above, and conventional cars like the Cruze and the Fiesta (and the Traverse and the 740i) pushing from below, it’s hard to see our current brand of hybrid finding much love. I don’t know whether it’ll happen in ten years or twenty, but the hybrid as we know it will someday sleep with the mermaids.
Written by: Ezra Dyer
Illustration by: Tim Marrs