Road rash

Can hybrid SUVs really help preserve fuel and save the planet?

Think your SUV will be more fuel efficient when it’s hybridized? Maybe, if you’re driving a Yukon Hybrid.

Think your SUV will be more fuel efficient when it’s hybridized? Maybe, if you’re driving a Yukon Hybrid.

One of the auto industry’s latest campaigns, hybrid sport utility vehicles, combines the green image hybrids enjoy with the inexplicably cool image SUVs have. Does it work? Are SUVs and green transport mutually exclusive? Well, yes and no.

One of the things that makes judging hybrids’ efficiency difficult is the misleading nature of miles per gallon statistics. Consumers would be tempted to look at a 10 miles per gallon increase in efficiency as equally important in either a Ford Superduty or a Geo Metro. However, bumping that Superduty up from 10 mpg to 20 mpg will save a whopping five gallons for every hundred miles driven. Bumping a Metro from 40 mpg to 50 mpg only saves half a gallon per hundred miles. So, the better the starting mileage, the less that extra 10 mpg matters. In this article, both consumption (gallons per 100 miles) and the more common mpg numbers will be used for purposes of comparison.

Now, this is important for the hybrid SUV discussion because many of the new hybrid SUVs are based on low-efficiency models. Take the new GMC Yukon: In standard form, this 5,700 pound traffic maul gets between 14 and 19 mpg (7.1 to 5.2 gallons/100 miles). That’s atrocious. Now, compare that to the even heavier Yukon Hybrid: 21 to 22 mpg still isn’t very good, but that consumption figure falls to between 4.8 gallons/100 miles and 4.5 gallons/100 miles. In city driving, that’s a savings of 2.3 gallons/100 miles. So if you need a $52,000, 6,000 pound highway bludgeon, the hybrid is much more efficient.

But how does the hybrid technology transfer to smaller rigs?

Not as well. The standard four-cylinder, two-wheel-drive Ford Escape knocks out 22 mpg city and 28 mpg highway (4.5 to 3.6 gallons/100 miles). The two-wheel drive Hybrid Escape gets 34 mpg city and 30 mpg highway (2.9 to 3.3 gallons/100 miles). You save 1.6 gallons in town but only .3 on the highway, and this miserly increase in greenness will run you $2,740 for the base model. Considering all the toxic industrial nickel that goes into the hybrid’s 250-pound battery pack, you might not be greener at all.

That said, interviewed Escape Hybrid owners gave their trucklets rave reviews. Karen Hinton, dean of the University of Nevada, Reno Cooperative Extension, described her ‘08 Escape as peppy, confident, efficient and similar to her old Ford Explorer. LuAnne Steininger described her ‘05 Escape as easy to drive, quiet and comfortable. That it comes with up to $3,000 in government tax breaks didn’t hurt either.

But there are other alternatives. Station wagons and hatchbacks offer similar storage space to a compact SUV, superior handling, better braking and similar-to-better crash test results. Because they don’t sit way up in the air, they can use smaller wheels, smaller engines, smaller suspension bits and smaller chassis. They are also much more aerodynamic. As such, the standard ‘08 Pontiac Vibe-Toyota Matrix twins, which are about 30 percent cheaper than a two-wheel drive hybrid Escape, can get 30 mpg city and 36 mpg highway (3.3 to 2.8 gallons/100 miles) while delivering similar acceleration and better handling. Need all-wheel drive? The slightly smaller Suzuki SX4 gets 21 mpg city and 28 mpg highway (4.8 to 3.6 gallons/100 miles) while undercutting the two-wheel drive Escape Hybrid by almost $7,000.