Led by the Toyota Prius, hybrid cars have an image as the most fuel-efficient vehicles on the road. But a rating of hybrids shows that the technology is often being used to boost power rather than efficiency.
The Union of Concerned Scientists last week released a hybrid scorecard that found a mixed bag on the environmental improvements from hybrids now available. The guide's author also said "forced features" such as high-end sound systems are raising the cost of hybrid vehicles.
The rating shows that mileage for hybrids varies greatly, depending on how hybrid power trains, which combine battery-powered motors with a gas engine, are used. The Prius has the best mileage, with a combined 50 miles per gallon, but there are a number of non-luxury models that get 21 miles per gallon.
Nine of the 10 top-selling hybrids get more than 30 miles per gallon, but only 13 of the 34 hybrids in the list reduced pollution by more than 25 percent, compared to their conventional gasoline-only counterparts. The Volkswagen Touareg Hybrid SUV, for example, emits 10 percent less pollution, according to the Union of Concerned Scientists.
"Automakers are still producing hybrids that fail to deliver on the technology's potential to dramatically improve fuel economy," scorecard author Don Anair said in a statement. "Their focus on maximizing power over consumer value risks the future of hybrid technology."
Hybrids made their mark by maximizing fuel economy but, as the Union of Concerned Scientist study shows, the technology can be used in all manner of vehicles, including SUVs or sporty cars, such as the Honda CR-Z. With rising fuel efficiency mandates coming online in the U.S. and other countries, more hybrid models are expected to come to market. But fuel-conscious consumers would do well to look less at the technology and more at the actual mileage rating.