While servicing my Toyota sedan last week, I wondered around the dealership and snapped some photos of the new 2007 Toyota Highlander Hybrid SUV. While the SUV itself was essentially identical to the conventional Highlander, its gasoline-electric hybrid engine was a work of art.
Despite my excitement for introduction of hybrid engines into standard automobile models, I question the merit of producing hybrid versions of notorious SUV gas-guzzlers. Excessive automobile fuel consumption occurs for two reasons: 1) the vehicle is too large for the driver’s needs and/or 2) the engine’s power greatly exceeds the needs of the vehicle. To their credit, hybrid SUVs do begin to address the later point. However, improved hybrid fuel efficiency only magnifies the first issue, allowing drivers to justify buying too much car in the name of environmental responsibly.
The March edition of Energy and Power Management Magazine includes an article “Go ‘Green’ Yourself”, in which Joe Salimando writes “many ‘green’ ideas floated these days seem the equivalent of building an expensive state-of-the-art gym to help a kid solve weight problems. But if the child can be more often found in the kitchen and doesn’t use the [gym] equipment, the solution fails.”
Hybrid SUVs are the adult version of the fat kid shirking the gym for the kitchen. To quantify this point, I compared fuel economies of various 2007 Toyota vehicles using the EPA’s fueleconomy.gov Web site. The 6-cylinder, 2WD conventional Highlander gets a combined 19 MPG while the equivalent hybrid SUV gets 26 MPG. Taken alone, this substantial improvement suggests the merit of purchasing the hybrid SUV. This position is betrayed, however, when Toyota’s non-SUV vehicles are considered against the hybrid SUV.
Most of Toyota’s conventional 2007 automatics get better mileage than the hybrid Highlander SUV: Matrix (27 MPG), Corolla (29 MPG), and Yaris (31 MPG). Moreover, Toyota’s hybrid cars blow the SUV out of the water: Camary Hybrid (34 MPG) and Prius (46 MPG).
Given their poor fuel economy, why would anyone buy an SUV, even a hybrid model? In his article “5 Reasons Why People Buy Sport Utility Vehicles”, Dale Wickell provides a few reasons including towing ability, height of the driver cabin, and additional seating. Nonetheless, improved fuel economy does not constitute justifiable reasoning for purchasing an SUV; not even a hybrid SUV.