Feature: Hybrids at the crossroads   new fuel efficient options for car buyers insights advice hybrids auto articles auto consumer info car culture auto brands auto tech
2012 Infiniti M35h; photo by Chris Chase. Click image to enlarge

This is not to say that hybrids in general are disappearing overnight. Some manufacturers are introducing new hybrids and others are broadening their line-up of hybrid vehicles, perhaps deliberately compromising fuel economy in favour of more character and drivability. Recent examples of the latter are the Honda CR-Z, Infiniti M Hybrid and Lexus CT200h. And yet others, the Korean manufacturers especially, are converting GDI engines and integrating them into a hybrid system. You get more power that way, along with fuel efficiency, so this may be a trend to watch. And luxury makers like Porsche and BMW do offer some hybrid variants of their high-performance models, reducing fuel consumption somewhat.

However, while Honda, Toyota and Infiniti are introducing new, sportier, hybrids, the Ford Escape Hybrid, a vehicle that appropriately put a hybrid drive-train in Canada’s most popular compact SUV, is no more. As of the 2013 model year, Ford has walked away from the Escape Hybrid in favour of their new Ecoboost GDI engines for this model.

Feature: Hybrids at the crossroads   new fuel efficient options for car buyers insights advice hybrids auto articles auto consumer info car culture auto brands auto tech
2012 Nissan Leaf; photo by Paul Williams. Click image to enlarge

The Nissan Altima Hybrid is also no longer available. Mr. Ghosn (Carlos Ghosn, CEO of Nissan) was never really sold on hybrids, anyway, and his company is now going full bore into the dedicated EV market with the Nissan Leaf. It, of course, has its own challenges, mainly centering on the vehicle’s range. Is a pure electric vehicle feasible as mainstream transportation technology? Everyone wants to know, and many manufacturers are arguably hedging their bets with EVs of their own, just in case.

The Saturn Vue Greenline? Well, Saturn’s finished and so is the Vue Greenline. But the Chevrolet Equinox version, expected to debut in 2011, didn’t materialize. Malibu hybrid? Gone, too, at least for the time being (GM’s eAssist “mild hybrid” technology is expected in the 2013 Malibu and is already available in the Buick Regal).

And how about this? Toyota has just inked a deal with BMW to use its diesel engines in Toyota products. Not to imply that Toyota is retreating from hybrids (now that would be news!), but for years, you couldn’t get a Toyota executive to even say the “d-word,” such was their disdain for the technology. But things apparently are changing.

For the here and now, as much as I like some hybrid vehicles, and as intrigued as I am with the Chevrolet Volt (which is unique on the market thus far), and as happy as I am to test drive the available hybrids and plug-in hybrids as they enter the market, personally, I’d suggest that cost-conscious consumers look at vehicles with a turbocharged GDI engine for high performance and fuel economy, or a non-turbocharged GDI for still superior power and very low running costs, at least for the time being. Such vehicles are also more fun to drive than your average hybrid has been thus far.

I’d also recommend diesels, but it’s an uphill battle getting diesel product in Canada, as the US market has historically not been receptive to them (and here in Canada, we typically get what the US market wants). However, Volkswagen’s doing well with its TDI models; let’s see how Mazda does, if they make their Skyactiv diesels widely available.

As far as PHEVs are concerned, they will become more widely available, but their relevance for consumers is compromised by the fact that many people don’t have a place to plug them in. People who park on the street are out of luck, those without a garage will also have trouble (220V systems must be inside; likewise 110V outlets, says the Volt instruction manual). Apartment dwellers may also face resistance from tenants who don’t want to pay common electricity fees when some residents are charging their cars. Both EVs and PHEVs will need a better system of recharging to become relevant to mainstream consumers. Until then, you’ll need an outlet and discipline to continually plug in your car.

But whichever way you (and the industry) go, one thing’s for sure: when it comes to personal transportation, we’re getting to the limits of fuel efficiency no matter what the technology. After all, moving 1,500 kilograms of vehicle requires a given amount of energy, and even a little 750-kg Smart needs a stated 5.4 L/100 km combined to keep it going.

At this point, anything around a combined 6.0 L/100 km combined is excellent. Cost conscious mainstream car consumers should target that kind of fuel consumption with the most power, and the best array of features, at the lowest price.

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