- The Washington Times - Sunday, September 23, 2001

As energy prices have gone up and the threat of war looms, so has interest in so-called "hybrid" vehicles. President Bush has proposed a massive tax credit for purchasers of these ultra-efficient vehicles, and the auto industry has several new models in the works. But are hybrids really as economical as touted? Or are they in fact an expensive albeit politically correct boondoggle?

There are two hybrids on the market at present Honda's Insight coupe and Toyota's Prius sedan. Both are conceptually similar in that they use tandem powertrains a small internal combustion engine mated to a small electric motor. The benefit of this arrangement is remarkable fuel economy (50-70-mpg) and almost nonexistent emissions. In other words, something on the order of 90 percent of the advantages of pure electric cars, but with none of the performance or functional liabilities, such as a range of less than 100 miles and the need to frequently plug in for recharging.

However, the hybrids do have one thing in common with the pure electric cars that have been such a disaster in the marketplace: they need massive subsidies. The difference is that at least insofar as the Toyota and Honda hybrids are concerned these subsidies have been effectively masked to such an extent that consumers are unaware of them. Hybrids are, like electric cars, not at present economically viable and may never be. The technology involved entails abnormally high manufacturing costs as compared to conventional cars and trucks. This is why, despite their popularity with consumers, relatively few hybrids have actually been built, and why there are no plans to appreciably increase production, according to sources within both companies.

As of the current model year, a combined total of 17,000 hybrid cars are expected to be sold in the United States a relative drop in the bucket. To put that figure in perspective, a car line (just one model, not the make itself) is considered a decent seller when annual volume moves beyond 100,000 units. Perhaps it doesn't pay to give cars away which is the dirty little secret of the hybrid vehicle.

The "high tech" aspects of cars like the Prius and Insight may be "cool" and attractive to those with extra cash to burn, but for the majority of buyers, that novelty factor is probably not worth the extra cost. Perhaps this is why the other automakers particularly General Motors, DaimlerChrysler and Ford are reluctant to jump with both feet into the hybrid marketplace. Mr. Bush's proposed tax breaks may help make hybrids at least temporarily economically viable, but they will have to be pretty big tax breaks. The money's got to come from somebody's pockets. The only question is whose pockets will it be?



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