Hybrid Hype The Basic Disconnect of Luxury Hybrids (Especially if They're SUVs)

When it comes to hybrid vehicles, there’s only one big winner: Toyota. The company has 80% of the U.S. hybrid market, and the majority of those sales are the brilliantly designed Prius.

The four-door Prius caught on both because of its incredible fuel economy—48 miles per gallon (mpg) in the city and 45 mpg on the highway—and because its unique styling makes an environmental statement about its owner. It looks like a hybrid. Unfortunately, many of the other hybrids on the market look like what they are: big SUVs. And that makes a statement, too.

Lexus is trying to paint its RX-400h hybrid bright green. The company partnered with North Face to create the Ice Lounge, a showcase for eco-innovation, at the Sundance Film Festival last year. Celebrities such as Heather Graham and Justin Timberlake got to ride around in the opulent vehicles, which are tricked out with 11-speaker Mark Levinson audio systems boasting of separate rear-seat controls, wood trim and even a camera so you don’t hit anything backing up.

But this $50,000 vehicle gets only 25 mpg (combined), which is decidedly average as we move into 2009. (It does get some points for clean exhaust: The RX-400h is a super-ultra-low emission vehicle, according to California’s air regulators.)

Let’s make this point clearly: There’s nothing magical about hybrid technology. SUVs are heavy and have poor aerodynamics, so when they’re hybridized poor fuel economy just gets a little bit better. Four-wheel drive is also a drag on mileage.

General Motors is closing four SUV plants and trying to offload the HUMMER brand, but that hasn’t stopped the company from basing most of its hybrid offerings on its largest products. Instead of fielding a built-from-the-ground-up hybrid, GM has chosen to make minuscule improvements to its big Silverados, Sierras, Tahoes and Yukons and paint them PR green.

Toyota’s brilliantly designed Prius.

The ’06 Chevy Silverado Hybrid, for instance, delivers 16/19 mpg. Not exactly impressive, and again hardly better than the standard (and cheaper) truck. For the 2009 model year, GM has put its sophisticated dual-mode hybrid system in the Silverado, for a claimed 25% overall fuel economy improvement. But it’s still a gas guzzler because the Silverado’s base performance (14/19 mpg) is so poor.

GM has also trotted out $50,000 dual-mode Yukon and Tahoe hybrids (21 city/22 highway, comparable to a standard four-cylinder Toyota Camry), and sales have been slow. There are plenty of high-end features, including a DVD-based entertainment system with nine speakers, dual-zone air-conditioning, and more, which helps the vehicle top the scales at more than 5,500 pounds.

For the ultimate in luxury, there’s the option of a hybrid version of the 2009 Cadillac Escalade, priced in the low- to mid-$70,000 range, which comes with voice-activated navigation, up-to-the-minute Bluetooth technology, a Bose sound system and three-zone climate control. But its 18 mpg in town and 22 on the highway is mediocre (though better than the standard truck’s appalling 12/19).

Here’s the problem: They’re too big and heavy! People don’t want huge cars and trucks anymore! Instead of the projected 10,000 to 15,000 per year, GM has been selling more like 500 a month of its big SUV hybrids.

GM argues that it can have more impact on the environment by improving the performance of the big vehicles that “people want to buy” than it can by making small, fuel-efficient cars. But that argument is threadbare today, because the big hybrid’s day has clearly passed.

Not all of the luxury hybrids are SUVs, of course. Lexus also fields the $55,000 GS 450h sedan, but despite incredible performance (zero to 60 mph in 5.2 seconds), this hybrid hot rod hasn’t been a big seller, either. When it debuted in 2005 it was the most expensive hybrid on the market, for one thing, and for another it gets only 23 mpg (combined).

If you must have an SUV, the best alternative is the fairly small and not especially luxurious Ford Escape Hybrid, but even that achieves only a combined 28 mpg.

For good fuel economy (and low global warming emissions), you don’t necessarily need a hybrid at all. The all-new and amazingly versatile 2009 Honda Fit sub-compact, for instance, starts at $14,550 and gets 28 mpg around town and 35 on the highway. The entry-level $15,000 Chevrolet Cobalt LS XFE, with nary a hybrid battery in sight, gets 25 mpg in the city and a glorious 37 on the highway. Of course, you have to accept a manual transmission, roll-up windows and manual locks. But get this: According to GM spokesman Nick Daniels, the Cobalt XFE is “flying off dealer lots.”