After my story about the Honda Accord V6 Hybrid a couple of weeks ago, I received plenty of thoughtful e-mail from the Times’ astute readership, who had apparently found the column by accident while looking for the Food section.
Several writers questioned the break-even calculation comparing the price premium of the Accord Hybrid model (about $3,400 over a similarly equipped V6) with potential fuel-cost savings. Assuming $2.25 per gallon and 100 miles of daily commuting, it would take, I wrote, about 6 1/2 years to recoup the difference.
Hang on, wrote one reader: That would add up to almost 240,000 miles. Had I factored in the cost of replacing the battery pack (about a $3,000 part) or the other hybrid components? I had not. The Accord Hybrid qualifies as a California Super Ultra Low Emissions Vehicle, which means its powertrain parts are warranted for 10 years or 150,000 miles. Honda says the hybrid components are no more or less vulnerable than other powertrain components; however, of the 65,000 or so Honda hybrid units tooling around the country, fewer than 100 have required a change in battery packs.
Another reader asked if I had factored in the federal tax credit for hybrid vehicles. I had not, since it would vary from buyer to buyer. In late September, the Working Families Tax Relief Act of 2004 extended the $2,000 tax deduction for hybrid vehicle purchases through 2005 – a rare bright spot in Congress’ dismal retrogression on energy issues. This is not a dollar-for-dollar credit; as a deduction, the savings would amount to the taxpayers’ federal income tax rate times $2,000; so if your rate is, say, 28%, you would see a benefit of $560.
The most interesting correspondence I received challenged the underlying philosophy of the Accord Hybrid, to wit: Should hybrid technology be used to chase performance – the Accord Hybrid is a full second quicker to 60 mph than the regular V6 – at the expense of greater fuel efficiency? Isn’t a hybrid performance car something of an oxymoron?
The same sort of question applies to the Ford Escape Hybrid, the first hybrid SUV to reach the market (it will be followed by the Toyota Highlander and Lexus 400h next year and by the Mercury Mariner in model year 2007). Is there something fundamentally misguided about fitting an SUV – an inherently inefficient vehicle morphology – with a hybrid powertrain? Doesn’t such a configuration squander much of the gain otherwise realized with hybridizing?
Trouble is, if you hold this technology hostage to the best possible application, you limit it to vehicles such as the Honda Insight and Toyota Prius, those strange visitors from another planet. If the goal is an appreciable improvement in overall fleet efficiency, hybrid technology must be disseminated to all sorts of vehicles appealing to a wide variety of buyers – underline the word “appealing.”
To be sure, the Escape Hybrid 4×4 is not an optimized platform. It is the same compact SUV, more or less, as the regular Escape (and its mechanical twin Mazda Tribute and Mercury Mariner). With a curb weight of more than 3,800 pounds, an ugly-to-the-wind aerodynamic cross-section, and mud-and-snow tires (higher rolling resistance), the Escape Hybrid is an elaborate retrofit of a vehicle designed back when the word “hybrid” brought to mind Father Gregor Mendel’s pea pods.
The Escape Hybrid works on the same principle as the Prius, marrying an electric “traction” motor to a high-efficiency 2.3-liter, four-cylinder engine and orchestrating the output of both depending on the vehicle speed and load. The internal-combustion engine offers high-speed efficiency while the electric motor provides low-speed torque.
In the Escape, there are actually two electric motors, one to drive the wheels and the other to kick over the gas engine; both motors are integrated into the vehicle’s continuously variable transmission (CVT) modular unit.
In slow-speed city driving, the vehicle relies mostly on its electric motor for propulsion. As speeds increase to around 25 mph, or the driver demands quick acceleration, the gas engine kicks in. Once at cruising speed, the gas engine takes over and the electric motor only contributes when a dose of passing speed is required.
Like other hybrids, the Escape uses regenerative braking. Think of it this way: A motor, like the one that drives your blender, is essentially a generator running backward, using energy instead of generating it. In the Escape, as the vehicle slows down, some of the vehicle’s kinetic energy is used to turn the electric motor in reverse, and that current recharges the battery pack. The Escape’s battery pack is made up of 250 1.3-volt nickel-metal hydride batteries. According to Escape project chief Mary Ann Wright, this battery pack will almost certainly last for the life of the vehicle.
As in the Prius, you can keep up with the electrons’ comings and goings through the vehicle’s energy-flow graphic display, integrated into what must be the smallest navigation display on the market – think Dick Tracy’s television wristwatch.
From the driver’s seat, the Escape Hybrid feels a little more like a science project than the Prius or Honda hybrids. When you get in the car, you hear the battery pack’s cooling fans come on. Turn the key and the engine trembles to life but then shuts down once the system controllers cycle through their diagnostics, assuming the engine is up to temperature. Pull the gearshift to D and the Escape pulls away with a soothing hum.
The Escape Hybrid will not blow your skirt up. The gas engine’s max horsepower is 133 and the electric motor’s is 93 hp. It doesn’t add up to an effective 226 hp because the components’ peak power occurs at different rpm. Car and Driver magazine clocked this vehicle at 10.8 seconds to 60 mph, which sounds about right. That’s a couple of seconds slower than the V6-equipped regular Escape.
According to the EPA, the Escape Hybrid racks up 33 miles per gallon in the city and 29 highway – the higher city rating is due to the vehicle’s increased reliance on electric power at low speeds. Those are very respectable numbers, underlining once again that hybrid architecture strongly favors short-haul, in-city driving like that done by delivery services and fleet vehicles.
The hybridizing added about 350 pounds to the vehicle, with 200 or so pounds being situated in the back. This reduced the cargo capacity to 1,000 pounds – not much, for sure. On the other hand, the extra weight in the back improved the vehicle’s overall weight balance and – acting as a mass damper – improved overall vehicle noise and vibration.
The Escape is a very likable vehicle to begin with and so the hybrid version is too, but with the drive-by-wire brake and accelerator controls, the electric-power steering and the generally remote tactility, it’s a little like driving the video game version of the car. Our test car was maxed out with features: leather, navigation system and six-way power driver’s seat. Among the surprise and delight features was a 110-volt outlet in the central console, allowing passengers to plug in their laptops.
The total: $31,825.
Which brings us around, again, to The Calculation: How long before you have saved enough on fuel to recoup the $3,000 or so price premium on the hybrid option? Well, that depends on your driving habits, but, assuming our previous parameters, you would save about $1,600 per year compared with the V6-powered Escape 4×4, which gets 18/22 city/highway EPA mileage. So you would actually break even in two years and avoid burning a not-trivial 1,438 gallons of gasoline.
That helps crystallize the issue, doesn’t it? Why hybridize SUVs? Because SUVs most need it.
2005 Ford Escape Hybrid 4×4
Base price: $28,005
Price, as tested: $31,825
Powertrain: 2.4-liter, dual-overhead cam, Atkinson-cycle inline four-cylinder gasoline engine; three-phase AC electric motor; 330-volt nickel-metal hydride battery; continuously variable transmission; full-time all-wheel drive with open front and rear differentials.
Power: 133 hp at 6,000 rpm (gas); 93 hp at 3,000-5,000 rpm (electric).
Torque: 129 pound-feet at 4,500 rpm
Curb weight: 3,839 pounds
0-60 mph: 10.8 seconds
Length: 174.9 inches
Wheelbase: 103.1 inches
EPA mileage: 33 miles per gallon city, 29 mpg highway
Final thoughts: Climbing the hybrid mountain
Automotive critic Dan Neil
can be reached at email@example.com.