Hybrids And MPG: Theory Vs. Reality

Ford has introduced two new hybrid vehicles lately – the C Max and the Fusion. Ford says both cars should get 47 mpg in both city and highway driving. But out in the real world, consumers and testers are finding their mileage is far less.

Ford Fusion Hybrid

Ford Fusion Hybrid

Consumer Reports found that both cars only got between 33 and 39 mpg in actual driving. Those numbers are not bad, in and off themselves. But the point is they are far lower than Ford claims.  And it has some customers who just shelled out a bunch of money for a new C Max or Fusion hybrid pretty upset. An ordinary Honda Civic is rated at 39 mpg highway and it doesn’t cost anywhere near the $30,000 Ford is selling its hybrids for. Oddly, the EPA rates the C Max at 39 mpg and the Fusion hybrid at 37 mpg. So where Ford is getting its numbers from is a bit of a mystery.

Ford C-Max

Ford C-Max

I used to sell cars for a living, back in the 90’s. I sold Saturns, which were designed from the ground up to be fuel efficient. And they were. But gasoline then cost half was it costs today. When I talked about fuel economy to my customers, their eyes would glaze over. They were far more interested in things that mattered to them, like cup holders, rear seat leg room and 0-60 times.

But today, it’s all about miles per gallon. Every manufacturer on the planet is desperate to show its cars are more fuel efficient than the other guys’. The Hyundai/Kia twins just underwent a painful public relations problem because their cars weren’t getting the kind of gas mileage out in the real world that they said they would. So now they are reimbursing customers for the extra gas they are using. Ford may soon find itself in the same bind.

Hyundai Elantra

Hyundai Elantra

When I bought my Prius in 2007, the window sticker claimed 60 mpg city/50 mpg city. I knew that was crazy talk. I figured if I got around 45 mpg in all around driving, I would be happy. And that’s exactly what I got on average over 70,000 miles.

Prius Window Sticker

Prius Window Sticker

The problem with all these hybrid vehicles is that drivers can and will experience a wide range of fuel economy performance out there on the highways and byways of life. We expect the results the manufacturers get under ideal conditions. I found from my own experience that hybrid battery performance falls off sharply in cold weather, reducing fuel economy by about 20%.  Also, winter blend gasoline reduces mileage by another 10%. So when the weather gets cold, your hybrid is going to get about 1/3 fewer miles per gallon then during the summer. No one tells you any of this when you are considering buying one of these cars, though.

Thermometer at 0The whole hybrid/mpg debate has led to some wild claims and near hysteria among the buying public. But in general, a hybrid owner has to keep a car for 6 years or more before fuel savings equal the extra money a hybrid costs to purchase. How many people drive the same car for 6 years in modern day America? Ford offers plug-in hybrid versions of the C Max and the Fusion that cost almost $40,000. Which means you have to drive for more than a decade before you start saving any money. Is anyone paying attention out there?

Prius hybrid battery

Prius hybrid battery

And then there’s the tricky question of how long the battery in that fancy new hybrid will last and how much it will cost to replace.  And that doesn’t even begin to address the environmental concerns that go along with recycling the battery when it’s used up.

It’s easy to understand how Ford dug this hole for themselves. They wanted to be able to say their cars outperform the Prius in the miles per gallon sweepstakes. And for a while, it was working. The C Max hybrid outsold the Prius in October of this year. But as word gets out that the claimed mileage doesn’t hold up in real world driving, sales may take a tumble. The question now is how Ford will get themselves out of this predicament. To paraphrase astronaut Jim Lovell, “Detroit, we have a problem.”


About Steve Hanley

Totally enamored with my family, my grandkids, and seeing the world.
This entry was posted in General Automotive, Hybrids, Technology and tagged , , . Bookmark the permalink.

7 Responses to Hybrids And MPG: Theory Vs. Reality

  1. Tony Brown says:

    In Europe, manufacturers are being fined if the consumption overall their range doesn;t reach a certain level, hence the inroduction of 8-speed auto boxes and so on. I mean, you might actually hit 8th a couple of times a year, but for the major part of commuter driving only five gears will come into play. Enter the hybrid; In theory, a sound idea – until you pursue it. For those made in Europe there was the stupid situation of the batteries being shipped from the east to instal in a car made in Europe. So much for “saving the planet”. As aforesaid, performance depends on the temperature, and this can also have a substantial effect on the longevity of the batteries. I am sure that in CA a battery will last far longer than in MT for instance. Now we come to the crunch, which is that when the batteries die, so dies the car since their replacement cost will exceed the value of the car. And the cost of disposing of the batteries?v Furthermore, it is reckoned, according to the Glass’s Guide 2nd hand car salesman’s Bible, that an electric car will retain only 10% of it’s original purchase price after but five years – unless there is an extended warranty on the batteries. It is now being proposed that one buys the car but leases the batteries – so another increase in overall cost.

    What is being overlooked is the enormous strides made by manufacturers to improve the consumption of their petrol powered cars. A Mercedes C180 petrol (156bhp) is rated at 40mpg and the C200 diesel (136bhp) at 43mpg. Take into account the potential problems with the diesel particulate filter and unless your mileage is over 20,000 p.a. the maths stand in favour of a petrol car.

    No, I’m still not convinced by this hybrid fashion; it seems to me to be a way of paying lip service to saving the world but achieving absolutely nothing. And if you want to go to the extreme, just look at this monstrocity of a racing car:-


    At least the Nissan Deltawing showed us speed, aerodynaimcs and superb fuel and tyre consumption.

    • Steve Hanley says:

      “Paying lip service ….. while accomplishing nothing.”

      That’s it precisely, Tony! Nevertheless, the US government is willing to promote this silliness by granting massive economic incentives to manufacturers and large tax credits to hybrid purchasers. The whole thing has a very “Alice In Wonderland” quality to it.

      Thanks for your comment.

  2. Jason Carpp says:

    I have a friend who drives a Toyota Prius hybrid. I don’t what the precise mpgs she gets, but I’m willing to bet around 35-45mpgs. That’s not bad for driving in and around Seattle. I’ve never ridden in the car during the winter months, so I don’t know just what the effect winter has on battery life. But she usually parks her car in the garage, which is usually pretty comfortable.

    • Steve Hanley says:

      Yup. Had some friends stop by this weekend with their Prius. They are getting about 45 mpg, but the cold weather has not arrived here in New England yet. 45 mpg isn’t bad. But a Prius costs about 5K more than a comparably equipped Corolla. You can buy a lot of gasoline with $5,000, even at $3.50/gal. And as Tony points out, there are lots of economic and environmental costs associated with the batteries that hybrids use.

      At the beginning of the motor vehicle era, there were electric cars, gasoline powered cars, diesel cars and steam powered cars. It took a while for the technology and the marketplace to come to equilibrium. I think something like that is happening now, as we try to find our way forward. The final chapter has yet to be written. Which is why we are having these discussions.

      • Jason Carpp says:

        I’m not against hybrid cars. In fact, I like the technology used in the car. When you’re accelerating, the gasoline engine kicks in, when you’re sitting at idle, at a stop light, the electric motor kicks in and you’re idling, thus saving gasoline until the gas engine is needed. Now, if someone could do the same with a diesel engine.

      • Steve Hanley says:

        Stop/start technology can be applied to any engine, Jason. And it does make wonderfully good sense. However…..if you shut the engine off, all the ancillary systems that are driven by the engine shut off as well – power steering, air conditioning, power brakes and, most importantly, the alternator.

        Which is why doing so in a hybrid vehicle works so well. Because, compared to a conventional car, there is a massive battery on board which can provide electrical power to the vehicle while the engine is in shut down mode. Manufacturers are turning more and more to electric steering and electric motors to spin the A/C compressor. This allows the vehicle to be operated safely and comfortably while the main engine is off.

        I’m not against hybrids either. I just think they are a step toward the future rather than the Nirvana of motoring. I also think that the publid in general is unaware of the drawbacks associated with hybrids. I’m in favor of more enlightenment and less marketing hype.

      • Jason Carpp says:

        I agree. Manufacturers seem to think it’s the only way to build cars these days. What I don’t like is everything on the whole damn car being electrical, the steering, the windows, the braking. When it comes to cars, I’ve always been old-school.

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