Are hybrid cars the best 'green' bet for motorists?

Yes: High gas mileage models have several significant payoffs; No: New diesel vehicles are more environment friendly

By Michael Kraft and Allen Schaeffer

McClatchy-Tribune News Service

Published: Sunday, June 23 2013 12:00 a.m. MDT

Car buffs check out a Toyota Prius at the Utah Auto Expo at the SouthTowne Expo Center.

Tom Smart, Deseret News

Enlarge photo»

Yes: High gas mileage models have several significant payoffs

GREEN BAY, Wis. — Modern electric hybrid vehicles have been sold in the United States for more than a decade.

Honda's two-door Insight hit the U.S. market in 1999, and Toyota marketed its first hybrid four-door sedan, the Prius, in 2000. Many other models soon followed, including hybrid trucks and sport utility vehicles.

All of the hybrids deliver superior mileage, especially in city driving. Hence they appeal to those drivers eager to save money on gasoline, leave a smaller ecological footprint or demonstrate personal commitment to a greener lifestyle. But are hybrids the best choice for consumers?

These vehicles certainly have some limitations. Many drivers, for example, complain that their performance lags that of conventional vehicles, especially in acceleration. Others suspect that hybrids will not save them much money, even with high gasoline prices, and they are right about that.

Consider two examples. A 2013 Ford Fusion Hybrid Sedan starts at $27,200, compared to the regular Fusion at $21,900, and a 2013 Camry Hybrid Sedan is priced at $26,140 compared to the gasoline version of the base Camry LE at $22,235. Fully electric vehicles are more costly, even counting their federal and state tax credits.

Is paying extra for hybrids or electric cars worth it? At current gasoline prices, most buyers would not come out ahead financially. The payback period is about eight years for the Fusion hybrid and 10 years for the Camry — longer than most people keep their vehicles.

However, such calculations are simplistic and misleading. They fail to put any price on the electric hybrids' significant contribution to improved air quality and their reduction in greenhouse gas emissions through burning less gasoline. Counting these very real and important costs makes the hybrids a better buy.

The overall environmental impact of electric hybrids, however, depends on how we produce electricity, and this varies across the nation.

For now, each potential buyer ought to consider carefully the place-specific and personal costs and benefits of hybrid or electric vehicles. There are websites devoted to helping consumers make these choices.

There are also larger public policy issues for governments to consider. The nation's continued reliance on fossil fuels to power vehicles makes it hard to improve urban air quality or combat climate change. Thus, over time, the United States and other nations must develop alternatives to gasoline-powered vehicles.

How we should pursue a transition to greener energy sources is subject to continuing political debate. We could consider raising taxes on gasoline and other fossil fuels — a carbon tax — as European nations have done, and we could lower other taxes enough to offset the added burden, so most drivers would face no net tax increase.

Alternatively, we could invest some of the revenue from those taxes in innovative research on electric car batteries and alternative energy sources that could speed our movement away from fossil fuels.

A well-designed and equitable national energy policy could be enormously beneficial over the next decade and even more so in the future. Sharp partisan differences are likely to block congressional action in the near term, but the states and the Obama administration can do much independently to diversify our energy sources and improve energy efficiency.

The president's critics tend to give him little credit for policy achievements over the past few years. Yet one that will have important and enduring effects on energy use is the dramatically higher fuel-efficiency standards he negotiated with the automobile industry.

We can see the impact already in the efficiency of new vehicles, and the changes will be even more impressive over the next decade.

Michael E. Kraft is professor emeritus of political science and public and environmental affairs at the University of Wisconsin-Green Bay.

No: New diesel vehicles are more environment friendly

FREDERICK, Md. — For Americans looking for new fuel-efficient cars the choices are plentiful. But for those looking for a proven technology with long-term value that delivers better real-world fuel economy without sacrificing performance, the new car may not use gasoline at all.

For more Americans this summer, the smarter all-around choice will be a new clean diesel.

The new generation of clean diesel cars is guaranteed to impress and crosses generational boundaries like a family reunion at a resort park.

Baby boomers will reflect on how the new diesels are "nothing like the old ones of my day — thank goodness!" Gone are the clatter and smoke, and wheezy slow performance.

They've been replaced with clean, quiet and fun to drive. Generation Xers will appreciate the driving performance, long-term value and positive return on investment of the new diesels.

Millenials will "Like" and "Tweet" how awesomely far they went on one tank of fuel; a new twist on the range-anxiety plaguing electrics and other fuels. They'll also be ready to fill up with a blend of biodiesel fuel, a unique capability shared by all diesel cars old and new.

Whatever the generation, the resurgence of the diesel car in the U.S. comes at a critical time, because the 30 percent fuel efficiency advantage of diesel over gasoline means using more diesels will reduce demand for petroleum and reduce emissions of greenhouse gases.

And since new government rules require a near doubling of fuel efficiency from today's 27.5 mpg average to 54.5 mpg by 2025, it's easy to see why diesels are a logical choice for consumers in the U.S. where diesels account for less than three percent of the market. In Europe over 50 percent of new cars are diesels.

Like the pump-bottle flavors at a summer snowball stand, today there are more diesel choices than ever before, with more on the way.

Today consumers have 22 diesel choices from 10 brands — subcompact cars, small station wagons, crossovers, full size SUVs, luxury, performance, half-ton and heavy-duty pickup trucks.

Five years ago less than half that were available. By 2015, there will be twice as many diesel choices in the U.S. as today.

Meanwhile the overall auto market was up less than 3 percent. While Texas and all its big pickup trucks help it rank No. 1 overall in diesel registrations, drivers in California, Massachusetts and New York made those states the fastest growing for sales of new diesel cars and SUVs. That we have seen this growth in diesel sales is no small feat considering the relatively few models available, an economic recession and the highest diesel fuel prices on record.

All new fuel and vehicle technologies have premium prices and compromises, but when you run the numbers for long term value, diesel drivers are seeing green.

Yes, diesel fuel prices have been 20 or 30 cents more per gallon than gasoline in recent times, but diesels also deliver better fuel economy, fewer refueling stops, consistently higher resale values, often lower maintenance costs and unmatched long term durability without the uncertainties or limitations associated with hybrid real world fuel economy or range limitations of electric vehicles.

As more Americans hit the road driving new clean diesel cars, they'll take comfort knowing that more than half of all service stations today sell diesel fuel.

And with ranges of 600-700 plus miles on a single tank, there's more time for vacationing and less time needed for fueling up.

Allen R. Schaeffer is executive director of the Diesel Technology Forum (dieselforum.org).

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