Acton Institute Powerblog

Feel-Good Hybrid Hype

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Subsidize this!

Richard Burr has an excellent commentary in the Weekly Standard on the growing — and for some reasons puzzling — popularity of hybrid vehicles. Puzzling because these things don’t get the promised gains in fuel economy and don’t seem to work very well.

Imagine buying a Chevy Impala or a Toyota Camry and being told that you can’t run the air conditioner on high. Or you need lessons from the dealer on how to brake the vehicle in order to recharge the battery more efficiently. No, you couldn’t imagine that.

Burr, who is associate editor of the Detroit News editorial page, points out that the hybrid owner is really making a statement about his or her environmental sensitivity. What’s more, the government is subsidizing these manifestoes on wheels.

Hybrids have become the environmental equivalent of driving an Escalade or Mustang. Who cares if they deliver on their promises as long as they make a social statement? Taxpayers should. The federal government subsidizes hybrid fashion statements with tax breaks that benefit the rich. The average household income of a Civic hybrid owner ranges between $65,000 to $85,000 a year; it’s more than $100,000 for the owner of an Accord. The median income of a Toyota Prius owner is $92,000; for a Highlander SUV owner $121,000; and for a luxury Lexus SUV owner it’s over $200,000.

If the government wants to subsidize automobile purchases, may I suggest it add the 2006 Camaro Concept just introduced at the Detroit Auto Show to its list of favored vehicles? It has a 400 horsepower engine with cyclinder deactivation technology that, General Motors says, gets 30 mph on the highway. A nice little government subsidy might persuade GM to put this gorgeous car into mass production all the sooner.

John Couretas John Couretas is Director of Communications, responsible for print and online communications at the Acton Institute. He has more than 20 years of experience in news and publishing fields. He has worked as a staff writer on newspapers and magazines, covering business and government. John holds a Bachelor of Arts degree in the Humanities from Michigan State University and a Master of Science Degree in Journalism from Northwestern University.


  • Hi John,

    I have looked deep into my imagination, and have accomplished a minor miracle. I have dreamt of a future where I cannot run an air conditioner on high, and must tap the brakes a bit differently. It is quite frightening, but after my shudders, I made it through.

    Hybrids are a marketing gimmick. They are selling like hot-cakes, so the car companies plug them. Some of them work better than others, but the gas differentials are insubstantial.

    However, I don’t find car company marketing quite as alarming as you do. I do however have a deep seated need for the return of “Rich, Cornithian leather” from Ricardo Montabalm ;-)


  • John Couretas

    Thanks, John. Can padded vinyl roofs, opera windows, and tufted velour upholstery be far behind?

  • Would you believe that in 1995 I bought a Camaro Z-28 6spd (275HP and a stick, what fun) and in 2005 I bought a Toyota Prius? ;-)

    I’m really the same person.

    You should note that the EPA has a real-world mileage database now:

    I don’t think I got the mileage they did with the Camaro … but I was probably hot-rodding too much. Now I use my mountain bike as my speed outlet and putter along in my Prius.

    BTW, the Prius scores better than the critics claim. For the 2005 Prius their real-world results are:

    Number of Vehicles: 77
    Average User MPG: 47.6
    Range: 32 – 61 MPG
    Updated On: 01/17/2006

    That’s in-line with my own mileage.

    The Toyota Camry is often quoted as a non-hybrid “equivalent” to the Prius. Using this new real-world source, we see that the (2005, 4cyl, auto) Camry gets:

    Number of Vehicles: 14
    Average User MPG: 27.8
    Range: 21 – 35 MPG
    Updated On: 01/17/200

    Far from being a minor improvement, the average Prius is scoring a 71% increase in mileage over the Camry!

  • Yeeks, that EPA survey is really not scientific.

    Consumer Reports has some more repeatable numbers.


  • As it happens, I am a scientist ;-), and can comment on this.

    There are two broad ways to approach this: One is to design an experiment in which you try to postulate the “typical” driving experience, and reproduce it in each test.

    The other approach is to treat it as a data collection problem, in which you harvest the information that is already out there – in this case the mileage that people are getting in the real world.

    Those two approaches are going to tell you different sorts of things. Certainly, when you are holding all variables eqaul but one (testing the same car with different tires) the first approach might be more stringent and informative.

    On the other hand, given the vast mix of cars and real-world driving mixes, which should I choose as a (potential) customer?

    I submit that “data collection” is the best approach, just because average real-world customer behavior with these cars is going to match my future behavior with a new car better than any EPA or CS test.

    When I owned a Camaro Z-28 I probably drove like (some but not all) of the Camaro Z-28 drivers. I say that because I was within the real-world “range” reported by the EPA, just at the low end of that range. I just did not hit the “average” they reported.

    When I owned a Subaru WRX wagon I apparently drove like many of the other Subaru drivers. I was very close to the “average” reported by the EPA.

    Now, with a Prius, I apparently again drive like many of the other Prius drivers. I am again very close to the “average” reported by the EPA.

    Not only does this method have a good scientific foundation (the use of not just averages, but varitions (and I’m sure in their private versions, deviations from the mean) … it works for me. ;-)

    (final note – the “experimental” method cannot give us “ranges” of MPGs, because it does not test (as does the “data collection” approach) a broad range of behaviors)

  • Scientist Odograph,

    Self reporting of gas mileage is not at all scientific (or useful).

    When I worked in automotive, we used to have multiple surveys of automotive quality. One from JD Power (coincidentally), which was marketing and PR driven, one from user self reporting, and one from actually repair data. (There is also one for warranty and recall data that is also PR driven).

    Nearly to a vehicle, the self reporting showed a great inverse correlation between price of car and frequency of repair. When one used actual repair data, the price of the car was not correlated to frequency of repair. The only conclusion I could ever make was, people who buy expensive cars are hesitant to say they bought a lemon.

    The science in both cases here is more of a human psychology experiment than any useful data as to the performance of a vehicle.


  • As a scientist ;-), I’d have to accept this if it was proven, specifically, that Prius owners were poorer at self-reports than Camry owners.

    But I can say, based on my experience, that many people in all sorts of cars quote me their “fond memories” of good mileage. I know a former girlfriend of mine would tell people “her mileage” when she never measured it at all. She just quoted the EPA highway number for here car.

    If anything the Prius, with it’s fuel computer staring you right in the face all the time, is going to trigger a better “memory” than the folks who measure their mileage now and then.

  • Those fuel computers very well could be programmed by the marketing team at Toyota ;-)

    Also, gas tanks expand and contract with the weather rendering those numbers basically useless. The only way (that I know) to do it, is to measure it on miles driven vs. gallons consumed on a significant sample size by a trusted 3rd party.


  • I would have thought that the fuel usage came from the injection & control system rather than from the bladder.

    Ah well. I think your “self-report” criticism is the best one to develop from your end.

    On the other hand, I think my best criticism of the old EPA method (and the Consumer Reports mileage loop) lies in the assumptions they make: One is that ever driver, in ever car, acts exactly the same way. The second is that the EPA/CR knows what that way is.

    The thing I honestly like about the self-report is that the assumption “Prius drivers are alike” (or “Camaro drivers are alike”) is a whole less bad than the much broader assumption that “all drivers are alike.”

    But I won’t try to force the issue. I think we have the criticisms outlined, I’m sure readers will make of it what they will.

  • We went out for a Sunday drive the other day (Sunday, as it happens) and ended up in the western suburbs of Boston: Lexington, Concord, Bedford, Lincoln. In addition to being the birthplace of the American Revolution, they also happen to be full of extremely wealthy and (because it's Massachusetts) liberal people. So would you care to guess which predominated in driveways and on the streets? If you said Toyota Prius you are correct. That little hybrid gas-electric car is the new status symbol…

  • RC

    For what it’s worth, here’s a real-world data point from me. In the past two days, I drove from Washington to Boston in a 2002 4-cyl Camry on one tank of gas and got 39.6 mpg, cruising at 60 most of the way. That’s better than odograph’s mileage range would lead one to expect.

    [Data source: the car’s MPG indicator.]

  • RC, do you keep a nomal-in town log of mpg?

    Or do you only measure while on road trips?


    My thinking is that Prius drivers, if anything, track in-town more than Camry drivers. We also get phenomenal MPGs under certain road trip conditions … but we’re not just tracking road-trips.

  • RC

    My usual driving in suburbia gives me 27-30 mpg, matching the numbers you cite. I wouldn’t compare that road trip to average driving, but it might be fair to compare it to highway MPG ratings.

    Anyway, does it make sense to tout the Camry as comparable to a Prius? A Corolla looks closer to it in size.

    For what it’s worth, CU’s figures were:

    Prius: 44 mpg overall; 35 city, 50 highway.
    Corolla: 29 mpg overall; 20 city, 39 highway.
    Camry 4 cyl: 24 mpg overall; 16 city, 34 highway.

  • I could post a picture of my mountain bike in the back of my Prius … don’t think it would fit quite so easily in either the Camry or the Corolla.

    (FWIW, the government classes the Prius as “midsize”)

  • BTW, I have a few MORE inches back there than I did with my small Subaru wagon (WRX).