Do hybrids deserve the hype?

Hug the earth and the road with right hybrid


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Q. I’m thinking of buying a hybrid car. Any suggestions?

A. Before you get all hyped up about buying a hybrid, ask yourself if you truly, deeply need a motor vehicle. And if you do, do you need to drive it every day? The reality is that way too many of us – more than eight in 10 Canadians over 18 – currently own or lease a car, according to Léger Marketing. More fast facts? Over 18 million vehicles are registered in this country, and in a three-month period in 2005 alone they travelled a whopping 88.6 billion kilometres, says StatsCan. That might explain why the average car produces between 4,500 and 5,400 kilos of carbon dioxide a year.

Every car, hybrid or not, has ecological implications beyond what’s coming out of its exhaust. For one, all that steel and aluminum is coming from somewhere – and mining is never ecologically pretty. Then there are all the toxic innards, like mercury switches and lead starter batteries.

Oh, and that new-car smell? That’s partly the scent of the phthalates (which California has classified as “reproductive toxicants”) used to soften the maligned PVC plastics used in the dashboard, door panels and weather strips. Hyundai was found to have by far the highest levels of phthalates in dust collected from the windshield interior. Mercedes had the highest number of PBDEs that’s the flame retardant found in farmed salmon and breast milk. For more info and details on how different cars rank, check Toxic At Any Speed at ,a href=”http://www.ecocenter.org”>www.ecocenter.org. Volvo, by the way, had the toughest policies on phasing out these chems.

Whatever you’re looking at buying, think small. The smaller the car, the lighter it is, the less earthly resources went into it and the less fuel you’ll need to burn. Unless you’re hauling cargo up snowy mountain faces, ditch the all-wheel drive it’ll just suck up more fuel. Power windows, seats and mirrors as well as AC all draw more power or add weight to the car.

If you’re at a dealership, look for the EnerGuide sticker on all new vehicles. It’ll tell you the highway and city fuel consumption rating and the estimated cost of gas for a year.

I know, I know you want names. Well, everyone and his car-loving uncle puts out a list of the greenest rides. The thing is, they all seem to use different measures. Natural Resources Canada’s EnerGuide Award names winners in every car category based on relative fuel efficiency (two-seater car: Honda Insight minivan: Honda Odyssey EX-L, full-size car: Hyundai Sonata).

The online Green Car Journal seems just to have picked five hybrid cars it thinks are cool, even ones that have been slagged for being not so efficient, then got a panel to pick their fave (2006 Mercury Mariner Hybrid).

Perhaps the most trusted source for ranking the year’s all-round greenest cars is the American Council for an Energy-Efficient Economy, which publishes GreenerCars.com. The group assesses automaker results for fuel economy and emissions, factors in the pollution from manufacturing the car and producing and distributing the fuel, then tosses in pollution from the car’s own tailpipe and evaluates the health problems caused by each pollutant. It even accounts for the power-plant pollution created by plug-in cars.

On a scale of 0 to 100, the greenest car this year got a 57. Actually, two did: the Honda Insight and the Honda Civic GX, which, interestingly enough, beat out the Civic Hybrid for overall eco-ness. ACEEE also put out a list of the “meanest” vehicles for the environment in 2006, topped by the Dodge Ram (which scored a dismal 12). And it provides rankings for all vehicle types, if you’re interested in the greenest compact pickup or mid-size wagon.

Ontario, by the way, has recently doubled the tax rebate for hybrids, so you can now get up to $2,000 back.

Know that most cars, hybrid or not, don’t actually manage to get quite the advertised miles per gallon in real life. And beware of poser hybrids like the new Honda Accord, which uses the energy generated from the battery for extra power, not fuel savings.

Ford, which has faced an onslaught of attacks from environmentalists for churning out the biggest gas guzzlers with the lowest fuel efficiency, now promises to turn half its fleet into hybrids by 2010.

If you’re thinking of buying a used hybrid, find out if the warranty has expired, and, if not, if it covers the battery and if it’s transferable. It’s a good idea to ask whether the battery has been changed. Be aware that it generally needs to be replaced after about eight years and that’s when most warranties expire. Replacing it will cost you a few grand.

For more info on buying a hybrid, check out the Union of Concerned Scientists’ Hybridcenter.org. It’s got useful comparison charts, buyers’ guides, hybrid reviews, news, and even a hybrid blog.

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