WHEN TREASURY SECRETARY John Snow announced guidelines for a new tax cut for the rich here last week, liberals did not denounce him. That's because the proposed tax breaks were for gasoline-electric hybrid vehicles, the favorite ride of environmentalists this side of bicycles. But the dirty secret about hybrids is that, even as the government continues to fuel their growth with tax subsidies, they don't deliver the gas savings they promise.
Most cars and trucks don't achieve the gas mileage they advertise, according to Consumer Reports. But hybrids do a far worse job than conventional vehicles in meeting their Environmental Protection Agency fuel economy ratings, especially in city driving.
Hybrids, which typically claim to get 32 to 60 miles per gallon, ended up delivering an average of 19 miles per gallon less than their EPA ratings under real-world driving conditions (which reflect more stop-and-go traffic and Americans' penchant for heavy accelerating) according to a Consumer Reports investigation in October 2005.
For example, a 2004 Toyota Prius got 35 miles per gallon in city driving, off 42 percent from its EPA rating of 60 mpg. The 2003 Honda Civic averaged 26 mpg, off 46 percent from its advertised 48 mpg. And the Ford Escape small sport utility vehicle managed 22 mpg, falling 33 percent short of its 33 mpg rating.
"City traffic is supposed to be the hybrids' strong suit, but their shortfall amounted to a 40 percent deficit on average," Consumer Reports said.
The hybrid failed another real world test in 2004 when a USA Today reporter compared a Toyota Prius hybrid with a Volkswagen Jetta diesel, driving both between his home in Ann Arbor, Michigan and the Washington, D.C. area. Both should have made the 500-mile trip on one tank of gas.
"Jetta lived up to its one-tank billing," reporter David Kiley wrote. "Prius did not."
Kiley had to stop to refill the Prius, which ended up averaging 38 miles per gallon, compared with 44 miles per gallon for the Jetta (which met its fuel economy rating). And this occurred during spring weather without the extra drain on a hybrid battery caused by winter weather--which would have favored the diesel Jetta even more.
Customers complain about the failure to meet fuel savings expectations. There are web sites such as hybridbuzz.com and chat rooms of hybrid fanatics who bemoan their lackluster fuel economy. About 58 percent of hybrid drivers say they aren't happy with their fuel economy (compared with 27 percent of conventional vehicle drivers), according to CNW Marketing Research in Bandon, Oregon.
It's gotten to the point where Ford is giving hybrid owners special lessons on how to improve fuel economy, according to USA Today. They teach drivers how to brake sooner, which helps recharge the battery. But they also drill owners with the same tips that help conventional vehicle owners improve gas mileage: Accelerate slowly. Inflate your tires. Plan your errands better. And this eye-opener: Don't set the air conditioner on maximum. "That prevents the electric motor from engaging," USA Today says.
HYBRIDS ARE ALSO failing to pay for themselves in gas savings. A study by the car-buying website Edmunds.com calculates gasoline would have to cost $5.60 a gallon over five years for a Ford Escape hybrid to break even with the costs of driving a non-hybrid vehicle. The break-even number was $9.60 a gallon for a Honda Civic hybrid.
Hybrid automakers and their supporters have their defenses. They quibble with how some studies are done. They point out that even with their fuel economy shortcomings, hybrids achieve the best gas mileage in three of five vehicle categories rated by Consumer Reports. Hybrids are still far lower-polluting than diesels. Their sales are growing fast, even though they make up a small 1 percent of America's annual sales of 17 million vehicles.
Then there's the ultimate defense: They are just like conventional cars because drivers buy them for many reasons other than fuel savings and cost. There's the "prestige of owning such a vehicle," says Dave Hermance, an executive engineer for environmental engineering at Toyota, the leading seller of hybrids. After all, many vehicle purchases are emotional decisions, he says.
SO, HYBRIDS have become the environmental equivalent of driving an Escalade or Mustang. Who cares if they deliver on their promises as long as they make a social statement?
Taxpayers should. The federal government subsidizes hybrid fashion statements with tax breaks that benefit the rich. The average household income of a Civic hybrid owner ranges between $65,000 to $85,000 a year; it's more than $100,000 for the owner of an Accord. The median income of a Toyota Prius owner is $92,000; for a Highlander SUV owner $121,000; and for a luxury Lexus SUV owner it's over $200,000.
This year the government will offer tax credits for hybrid purchases ranging up to $3,400, with owners getting a dollar-for-dollar benefit on their tax forms. This beats last year's $2,000 tax deduction, which amounted up to a $700 benefit, depending on the driver's tax bracket.
JUST A FEW YEARS AGO, liberals criticized the Bush administration for allowing professionals to get tax breaks on large SUVs if they were purchased for business purposes. But evidently it's okay to subsidize under-performing hybrids.
Perhaps with more technological advances, hybrids will some day deliver on their fuel economy promise and truly be worth the extra cost. But the tax credits have become just one more welfare program for the wealthy. Let the fast-growing hybrids show that they can pay for themselves.
Richard Burr is associate editor of the Detroit News editorial page.