Overhyped Hybrids: Green Cars That Guzzle Gas

Interested in an energy-efficient auto? You're in luck. That's because nearly every major car company has a hybrid line, or has plans to introduce one soon.

But enter the showroom, and instead of seeing green, you may be seeing red. Many of the market's hybrids — cars which combine gasoline engines with battery-powered electric motors — forsake fuel-efficiency in the name of power and performance.

The average gas mileage of hybrid models available in the U.S. is 33 miles per gallon (combined city and highway). But Chevy's newest Silverado hybrid truck gets only 16 mpg. The newest Lexus LS 600h L hybrid sedan clocks in at 21 mpg, the 2007 Saturn Vue hybrid at 26 mpg.

See pictures of the least efficient hybrids at our partner site, Forbes.com

This contradiction is not lost on consumers. The most recent 2006 J.D. Power and Associates Alternative Powertrain Study found that only 50% of new-vehicle shoppers are currently considering a hybrid — down from 57% the year before.

"In the 2006 study, we found consumers often overestimated the fuel efficiency of hybrid-electric vehicles," said Mike Marshall, director of automotive emerging technologies at J.D. Power. "The decrease in consideration of hybrids in 2007 may be a result of their more realistic understanding of the actual fuel-economy capabilities."

Problematic Pumpbusters

In fact, the fuel economy of many new hybrids is almost indistinguishable from that of their conventionally powered counterparts. (The Department of Energy and the Environmental Protection Agency list info on hybrid vehicles at fueleconomy.gov, including numbers that have recently been updated to reflect actual gas mileage — not just numbers from ideal-condition driving, which are often used in marketing.)

Take the GMC Sierra Classic 15 Hybrid. Its V8 engine and hefty 5,000-lb. weight keeps its gas mileage to 16 mpg — only one mile per gallon more than GMC's non-hybrid version.

Few would consider a truck that guzzles that much gas a friend of the environment--or the wallet. The Department of Energy estimates that Toyota Prius owners will spend an average of $900 on gas per year. The Classic 15 hybrid is expected to swallow over $2,600 in gas per year.

That's cash consumers don't want to spend. The J.D. Power study found that buyers expected hybrids to gain 18.5 mpg over similar non-hybrid vehicles.

Honda, a company that forged the hybrid car market in the U.S. with the 1999 Insight, understands this. Due to poor sales, the Japanese company is discontinuing its Accord Hybrid, which is considered a "mild hybrid." Such cars have oversized starter motors that allow gas to be saved when coasting and while stopped, but have no hybrid drivetrains, meaning there is no electric motor to drive the vehicle. Mild hybrids also rarely have regenerative braking — a system that converts kinetic energy from the brakes into electrical energy to help power the vehicle.

Despite outperforming the conventional Accord, the hybrid's poor fuel economy (27 mpg) hasn't made the $31,090 price tag worth it to consumers. Instead, Honda will focus its energy on the smaller Civic, which costs $10,000 less and has 19 mpg better fuel economy than the most powerful conventional Civic.

Many U.S. carmakers, however, aren't following suit.

GM's Gas Guzzlers

This year, in addition to two large hybrid SUVs with V8 power and abysmal fuel economy, GM will roll the Saturn Aura and Chevy Malibu hybrid sedans (both 27 mpg) straight off the assembly line and onto the bottom of the efficiency heap.

The Aura Hybrid, a $22,700 midsize with a four-cylinder engine, has the same gas mileage as the conventional engine in the comparably sized and more modestly priced Kia Spectra ($16,000).

GM officials have pointed out that the company makes more models with 30 mpg or better than any other manufacturer, and that GM has been investing heavily in ethanol and fuel-cell technology.

Still, Bradley Berman, editor of hybridcars.com, says manufacturers like GM should expect sluggish sales. Consumers' ecological concerns don't seem to be waning, and fuel prices, now around $3 a gallon, continue to spiral upward.

"The reality now is that people want maximum mpg," he says. "The most fuel-efficient hybrids are selling a lot better than the hybrids that are oriented toward power."