Smug Emissions

You can't spell pretentious without PRIUS.The conjunction of Earth Day and popular environmentalism is less than a week away, but it’s a union long in the making. While the holiday itself was established in 1970 in response to an oil spill off the coast of Santa Barbara, the fad of being “green” is only now reaching maturity.

Award nominations for global-warming documentaries are as numerous as billboards toting advocacy toward reducing our “carbon footprint.” People can now assuage media-nurtured guilt that we’re slowly poisoning our planet by buying a TerraPass. And Ed Begley, Jr. has passed from the realm of crazed eco-hippy to folk hero with his television show. (For the record, Living With Ed is well worth watching.)

So, like the spotted owl, a Tickle Me Elmo doll, or a pair of Ugg boots, the earth itself is now a passing fancy for those who think environmental activism is a good way to look like you give a shit. And few things crystalize that obnoxious behavior better than hybrid automobiles.

You’ve undoubtedly seen one on the road; heck, you may have succumbed to the puffery and bought one. If the urban legends are true, hybrids get insane gas mileage, cure cancer, and fill potholes while you drive. They garner tax credits and let certain percentages of owners drive in the carpool lane, which is always awesome for those of us with equally efficient but less trendy cars sitting in traffic. And their unique design — particularly the Toyota Prius — lets people know when they’re in the presence of someone special.

To put it succinctly: “they emit massive amounts of Smug.”

Normally I don’t invoke this level of antipathy towards something as stupid as a car, but the hype over hybrids really rubs me the wrong way. Are they well-built, technologically-advanced automobiles? Absolutely. Will they single-handedly save the planet?

Are you kidding?

Regardless of the word of mouth, you can’t escape the fact that the cost of a hybrid, both to the consumer and to the manufacturer, mitigates any advantage for most car buyers. They cost far more and take much longer to realize a savings. For example, a 2007 Honda Civic sedan starts at roughly $15,000, while a Prius has a base MSRP of $22,175. The cost differential alone buys 2,200 gallons of gas at today’s prices in Southern California, enough gas to drive that Civic over 75,000 miles. Car and Driver estimated in 2004 a Prius would have to drive 165,000 miles to see a financial benefit for its owner.

This says nothing of the added costs of developing and building each new hybrid vehicle. “These cars are very complex, and expensive to build,” notes Peter Kammler of the New Zealand Herald. “If it takes the average motorist five years to recover the extra cost for a hybrid through fuel savings, one can guess that the extra energy used in the production process of the hybrid components takes a similar length of time to recover.”

Even acknowledging these costs, proponents explain that they fill up their tanks far less than drivers of their gas-guzzling counterparts do. Indeed, a major factor leading buyers to hybrid vehicles is the promise of greater range per tank, and they are quick to point to EPA studies claiming absurd miles-per-gallon ratios. It’s a shame those tests are based on criteria established in the 1970s, long before ultra-low emission vehicles were on the drawing board. When updated tests make their way into EPA labs, expect those MPGs to drop dramatically.

Even better, witness it for yourself. Rent a hybrid and test drive it on a highway; you’ll see no net difference between it and its gasoline-powered equivalent. That’s because the benefits of the hybrid engine disappear when driving long distances at sustained speeds. If your commute isn’t clogged with red lights and traffic stops, the only benefit you’ll reap is a sense of satisfaction in driving an overpriced automobile.

(If it is, however, your mileage will improve. Hybrids do excel at maintaining energy efficiency in stop and go situations.)

“Hybridizing” small vehicles that are already fuel efficient is not the answer. According to, “a vehicle that improves its fuel economy from 14 mpg to 16 mpg saves the same amount of gas annually as a vehicle that improves its economy from 35 mpg to 51 mpg.” While that seems counterintuitive, it makes sense if you rate vehicles by fuel consumed per unit distance rather than by miles per gallon.

There are other negating factors to hybrids, such as the system’s weight and the possible environmental damage created by mining the nickel used in the battery system. I will admit, however, that hybrids do excel in the luxury department. The Prius is comfortable to drive and has a load of features that you simply cannot find in comparable models, including touch screen controls and GPS tracking. They are solid automobiles with some attractive bells and whistles. So why not sell it to the public as the technological marvel it is and not the planet-enriching super car it isn’t?

Because being “green” is hip and fun and fashionable, and it helps sell product. It helps people feel like they’re doing something for the environment without changing their patterns of behavior or even changing the environment. People who normally wouldn’t care if global warming wasn’t splashed across television sets and magazine covers on a routine basis.

There are several easy ways to reduce emissions without buying a new car. Keeping your car warm and its tires properly inflated alone can work wonders. But if you have the kind of disposable income to buy a new car solely to clean up the air, consider a diesel engine. The fuel is sustainable and is created through conventional organic waste (unlike ethanol, which takes a field of corn to convert into a tank of truck fuel), plus they get comparable mileage to a hybrid without the hybrid engine. Volkswagen’s Turbo Diesel Jetta has a sturdy diesel engine that gets better mileage with a LiIon battery system and is rated 10 out of 10 by the EPA for its Greenhouse Gas score.

Most new cars are already pretty clean-burning by virtue of efficiency and government standards. And while future vehicles will undoubtedly take advantage of systems currently in place inside hybrids, the engines aren’t going to plant a tree or clean trash off road medians. You are. Caring about the environment isn’t as simple as buying an expensive toy or knowing a few buzzwords.

A conjunction, astrologically speaking, creates “helpful energy” that nurtures inner strength and ambition. And while I hate astrology and everything associated with it (including the fact I directed traffic to an astrological “glossary” for this report), the planet can certainly use that kind of positive mojo. Let’s all use that strength to overcome popular suggestion and look at the facts. Hybrids may have the ambition to save the world, but right now they’re just another marketing ploy.