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2014 Honda Accord Hybrid Touring. (Honda/Wieck)
2014 Honda Accord Hybrid Touring. (Honda/Wieck)

The Green Highway

The hybrid conundrum: Why build unpopular cars? Add to ...

I recently drove two new hybrids that I like, but personally I wouldn’t buy either. In that regard, I am far from alone.

Canadian auto analyst Dennis DesRosiers says that hybrids have been on the market in Canada for 14 years and last year, for the first time, hybrid sales finally topped 10,000 units. That’s in a market of 1.7 million vehicles.

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When they first hit the streets in 1999, hybrids looked and drove like science experiments. Honda was first with the Insight, which rode like a buckboard powered by a chainsaw. It was not refined, but during its short market life, the Insight won lots of green car awards and was a fuel economy champ. But did it sell? Not so much.

The second-generation Insight came along in 2009 with a number of technological advances and better looks but its fuel efficiency was worse, not better, than the old Insight. The Toyota Prius clobbered the Insight in terms of sales and it appeared that Honda wasn’t interested in this whole hybrid thing.

However, I just drove the new Honda Accord Hybrid and here, finally, is a smooth, sophisticated hybrid worthy of Honda. It drives like a real car and delivers the best Natural Resources Canada fuel economy rating of any four-door mid-size sedan.

The other hybrid that impresses me is the Ford C-Max, which competes with the venerable Toyota Prius V, which is the sales leader. The C-Max is a spinoff of the Ford Focus platform and is roomier with more flexible cargo space. It drives smoothly and quietly, just like the Focus.

In both the C-Max and the Accord Hybrid you can forget that it’s gasoline-electric because the transitions between power sources is seamless and there is no feeling that you’re lugging around a heavy battery underneath somewhere.

Yet if I were buying I’d take the gasoline engine Focus or the gasoline engine Accord over the hybrid equivalent. The price premium you pay for a hybrid takes forever to be paid back in fuel savings. Also I’m almost certain that new battery technology will be along shortly that will make those expensive, low capacity lithium-ion batteries instantly obsolete. So I went back to DesRosiers with my concerns.

“All roads lead to electric in this industry. But the road is very long,” he said.

“How long?” I asked.

“It could be 2040 or 2050 before the technology breaks through,” he said.

“Why do auto makers invest hundreds and hundreds of millions in hybrid and plug-in technology when they are fully aware of its limitations?”

“There are tough fuel economy standards coming in 2016 and even tougher in 2025,” DesRosiers said. “But the standards are set up in such a way that you can game the system. You get all kinds of credits for selling them, double, triple credits, credits just for offering them and credits for just doing the R&D.”

“But the industry knows these cars aren’t selling,” I said.

“The industry is so attuned to the politics of the situation that they’re playing the PR game,” he replied. “They’re throwing a lot of product at the politicians to be able to say, ‘Look guys, you asked us for fuel efficiency. Here’s what we’re doing.’ They can come back in five years and say it’s not our fault they didn’t sell. We discounted them, we offered variety, good prices, good technology. Don’t look at us, Mr. Government. Don’t regulate us.”

DesRosiers can be shockingly cynical, but I agree that the road to all-electrics is long indeed. At least there are some interesting steps along the way with hybrids like the C-Max and Accord.

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