Until recently, the typical hybrid buyer tended to be the sort of person you’d try to avoid sitting next to at dinner parties. Ok, perhaps that’s a bit mean, but one had to be fairly committed to the cause to go hybrid.
However, things are changing. A new Prius is here, which (whisper it) doesn’t drive like a mooing double bed on castors anymore. A couple of weeks back we reviewed Honda’s Insight, which can be had at a cheaper price than a hybrid’s ever been before. And then you can throw into the bargain the new Ford Fusion Hybrid - we’ve driven it, and it’s brilliant (unlike the Mercury Mariner Hybrid, which isn’t). Hybrid’s going mainstream.
Manufacturers are falling over themselves to ready hybrids – even once staunch opponents such as VW – because the technology is settling as one pattern by which America will go green. Europeans have long known diesel will deliver similar fuel economy benefits as a hybrid – but those on the other side of the pond still aren’t too sold on the idea. Before we embark on a Euro-bash of Americans and/or hybrids, there are fairly credible reasons for this. Diesel’s more expensive to buy in the US than in Europe – here, diesel’s been pushed (with tax breaks) – particularly by the French and Germans, so there’s now much more refinery capacity, for instance. And while diesel delivers better fuel economy (and hence lower CO2 emissions) than petrol, NOx and particulate matter from diesel exhausts are still problematic. They contribute to local respiratory diseases, and cost big money to reduce. Just ask Mercedes, BMW and VW who are adding expensive ‘ad-blue’ exhaust treatment systems to the cars they sell in North America, in order to pass the Tier II Bin 5 regs (don’t ask).
What’s really significant is that Porsche and, yes, even Ferrari, will soon debut hybrids. Hybrid technology in performance-orientated cars is serious news. It’s easy to argue manufacturers who are about to get hit over the head (with heavy fines) by the EU over fleet emission have to go down this route, but that misses the point.
Firstly, it means that hybrid technologies can be seen to have benefits in a wide spectrum of automotive applications (not just ones primarily aimed at city-based, compact family vehicles bought by people who aren’t gear-heads). Secondly, it alludes to the notion that hybrid technology could actually enhance, rather than detract from the driving experience. The Prius and Insight are automotive cardboard. One doesn’t extract pleasure from piloting them down a challenging road. But if the technology is arriving in a Porsche and a Ferrari, then you can be sure that is about to change. ‘Fun’ and ‘hybrid’ will shortly be appearing in the same sentence, without being followed by guffaws.
This slow but steady greening of the automotive industry bears remarkable similarity to a previous automotive ‘trend’, which resulted in a complete attitudinal change in consumers back in the 1990s.
In the late 1980s and early 1990s, only Volvos and Saabs were famed, and bought, for their safety. Of course, Mercedes had invented the airbag back in the 1970s - and it was appearing on top of the line S-classes in the late 1980s, but very little else. Then in 1993 Ford launched the European Mondeo – the first real mainstream affordable car with a driver’s airbag fitted as standard across the entire range. Except, in the UK, Vauxhall decided to beat Ford to it, literally by weeks, by doing the same in their updated Cavalier.
By 1995, buying a new car that didn’t have a driver’s airbag was the exception rather than the norm. Then in 1997, Euro NCAP appeared. Suddenly, buyers knew which cars were ‘safe’ and which weren’t – and it was being thrust in their face. Safety became a selling point – which brands like Renault capitalised on. Come 2009, and it’s odd for any vehicle not to get 5 stars (the top crash rating) in a Euro NCAP test. Cars are much more crashworthy than the ones of twenty years ago. Consumers expect safety. They believe if they’re involved in a 40mph shunt, they’ll walk away. It took them a while, but it became the expected norm. Cars which flunked tests, suffered in the sales figures.
It sounds cynical, but I think that’s what you’ll see with hybrids, and green cars generally. Before long, it looks likely most new cars will include - at a basic level - something like stop-start technology. This is a big deal in itself, because emissions and wastage from idling cars in traffic is huge. But it’s looking like many vehicle will include some kind of hybridisation – regenerative braking, additional electric motors, a road-going version of F1’s KERS.
So what you might say? There are three main reasons this is important:
- It will cut emissions and raise fuel economy standards across the board.
- It means the fun to drive, performance-orientated car is far from dead.
- It conditions the market. Consumers, brought up for 100 years on a constantly running petrol or diesel motor, get used to the fact their car turns itself off at the lights, needs starting up in a different way, or doesn’t have a conventional gearbox. That’s good news – it leads us down a path of faster acceptance and uptake of new technology, and new forms of vehicles.
The revolution is here now, and already being advertised. BMW calls it efficient dynamics. Audi’s just jumped on the bandwagon – and is calling it ‘recuperation’. Just as safety was the selling point of the 90s, judging by current adverts, hybrid, energy and green have now gone mainstream too. Before long, the consumer will expect – and likely demand - it.
Posted by Joseph Simpson on 10th June 2009