The US has embraced hybrids, but they differ enormously from clean, efficient European versions. Richard Yarrow investigates
If you’ve been reading these pages of the magazine for the seven issues that What Hybrid has been in existence, then you’ll be familiar with the concept behind hybrid technology. In short, a traditional combustion engine works in tandem with an electric motor and battery to improve fuel consumption and emissions. There are variations – series and parallel, for example – but the basic principles remain the same.
The engine involved is usually a four-cylinder petrol unit. For example, the two most popular models – the Toyota Prius and Honda Insight – are fitted with 1.8 and 1.3-litre powerplants. The first production diesel hybrid will appear next year, but that’s for another day. Things are slightly different in North America. Check out Toyota’s US website, and you’ll find that the Camry hybrid saloon is just over a foot longer than the Prius and 100kg heavier. While the Prius is fitted with a 1.8-litre engine, the Camry gets a 2.4. Not surprisingly, the pair’s environmental performances differ wildly. The US website claims that the Prius’s will manage a respectable 51mpg on the city cycle, which is where hybrids offer the most significant savings over conventional cars. For the Camry hybrid it’s just 22mpg. Not exactly saving the planet, is it?
Things are no better at Chevrolet. The firm offers a saloon called the Malibu, which is exactly the same size as a Ford Mondeo. There’s a hybrid version, and according to the company’s US website its city performance is a paltry 26mpg. Firstly, it’s not much better than the Camry, and secondly, the rest of the Malibu petrol range returns 22mpg. Once you’ve taken into account real world driving conditions, which official figures never reflect, there will be very little difference. The reason is that all Malibus, including the hybrid, have the same 2.4-litre engine. Cynics might suggest the hybrid is only offered to the public as a corporate boxticking exercise, and bought by customers who don’t know any better.
Ford has yet to launch a hybrid in the UK, but Stateside there’s the Escape SUV and Fusion saloon. The latter is another Mondeo-sized car, yet its electric motor is mated to a 2.5-litre petrol engine. Can you imagine a Mondeo hybrid for the UK getting anything as big as a 2.5? Not likely. The reason drivers in the UK buy mainstream hybrids is because they’re interested in fuel economy. Whatever their motives, they want to make a statement about their concern for the environment. In North America, people might still want to make that statement, but given the products available, it’s hard to argue that’s what they’re actually doing.