Thursday, 26 July 2007

Hybrid Hypocrisy

EVER played the game “Mini-Punch”? For the uninitiated, this is a great way to pass the time on a journey of any length. The rules are simple: every time you see a Mini (or MINI), you yell “MINI PUNCH!” and smack the person next to you on the nearest available limb.

Predictably, on a recent trip to London, I got a very sore arm indeed.

It’s a good thing, however, that the rules haven’t been extended to include Toyotas, or I may well have been hospitalised. Quite apart from the yuppie-favourite R50s and R56s, a surprisingly large proportion of Big Smoke real estate was occupied by Toyota hybrids, in both Prius and posh Lexus flavours. It took me a while to work out why, but I finally cottoned on – it’s because they’re exempt from the dreaded C-Charge.

Let's take the Prius first: It isn’t exactly as green as the eco-conscious chat-show regulars would have us believe. Most tests achieve a combined mpg of between 40 and 45mpg, which is impressive for such a bulky car… until you recognise that my mother, bless her, never fails to get 43mpg or more from her 1.6 petrol Golf, and that Jeremy Clarkson once drove an Audi A8 TDI from London to Edinburgh and back on a single tank of diesel. But you can, at least, see why Ken has fallen for the eco-babble. Big car, small fuel consumption – everyone’s a winner.

Less explicable, though, is why Lexus’ range of hybrids is exempt. What they’ve done, basically, is to take cars with performance already on the ample side of sufficient, and to add electric motors for a bit of extra oomph. Except for libel laws, this would be known as “cheating”. The RX and LS hybrids have urban mpg figures in the low twenties, yet because they’ve got a Kenwood food blender attached to the drive-train, they’re considered green enough to swan around central London all day long.

Take the new LS600h as an example. Lexus make the claim,oft-repeated in the motoring press, that it has “performance comparable to a 12-cylinder petrol engine, yet with the fuel economy and emissions of a six-cylinder car.” This is pure marketing bullshit. Claimed urban mpg is less than twenty, and considering Toyota’s somewhat optimistic assessment of the Prius’ economy, that figure should perhaps be taken with a pinch of salt. Laughably, even Lexus’ own LS460 has higher claimed motorway mpg than the LS600h: yet the latter is ‘green’, while the former is not. Furthermore, both Lexuses (Lexi?) begin to look distinctly dunce-like in comparison to the aforementioned Audi A8 TDI, which offers nearly double the motorway mpg of the 600h – 39.8 vs. 22.

Indeed, the only real advantage the ‘green’ Lexus has over the ‘smog-brown’ Audi is performance. Because of the torque of the electric motors, the 600h can storm to 60 in five seconds dead, while the A8 takes a second longer. Basically, Ken is rewarding you for driving a performance car.

Now, I should be happy about this: after all, I’m as much of a fan of fast cars as any other twenty-something car enthusiast. I’d gladly have an SD1 Vitesse, and drive it in so lead-footed a manner that we’d have to invade Kuwait just to keep me in jungle-juice.

But here’s the thing: I wouldn’t be hypocritical enough to claim I was saving the planet whilst doing so.

Friday, 6 July 2007

Give some Gear

As commutes to work go, I suppose, mine isn’t the worst. Fifty miles of A429 spear their way through Gloucestershire and make significant inroads on Warwickshire, with a smattering of curves thoughtfully inserted to awaken the inattentive, and a jus of tumbling hills which, on a clear day, provide a stunning panorama.

Villages with names like Stow-on-the-Wold and Moreton-in-Marsh betray the road’s ancient origins, and seem to be the subject of a gentleman’s agreement of some sort: in exchange for careful observance of the 30mph limits, keen drivers can go bonkers once they’re through, aided and abetted by an almost complete absence of Scameras. Despite the best efforts of both councils to spoil the party with potholes so deep that I’ve seen someone emerging from one with a pickaxe and an Australian accent, the experienced helmsman can hustle down there at a fair old lick… in theory.

In practice, the road is a corridor between the M4 and M40, meaning that every corner hides another Eddie Stobart beast. And even the eighteen-wheelers are brought down to a crawling 40mph by The Widest Nissan Almera In The World. All too often, I’ll power into a bend, clip the apex, dodge the pothole, and exit triumphantly, to find the road ahead blocked by a fourteen mile road-train, headed by Albert and Ethel and their tartan rug on the parcel shelf.

Now, this isn’t yet another rant about what I believe to be a secret World’s Slowest Driver competition. Indeed, in a badly misfiring 820i, which regulars will know is my current steed, I often come away with the trophy. I’m more interested in what happens in the only moments of blessed relief in fifty miles – two half-mile long hills with overtaking lanes.

Things must be prepared carefully. You allow distance to build between yourself and the car in front as you descend into the valley and drop into fourth. As the perigee approaches, you snick into third and floor it, carrying speed, revs and power just as you hit the overtaking lane. You triumphantly blast past the first car, then the second. The World’s Widest Nissan Almera is in sight! And then a Passat Diesel pulls out in front of you. He hasn’t followed the steps above: the decision to overtake has been a mere whim to him. In fact, he’s still in sixth. What should he care, with his turbodiesely globs of torque? But because the hill is so steep, and he’s not really concentrating, he spends so much time going past the car in front that, by the time its your turn, there’s four inches of overtaking lane left and you have to pull in behind Albert again.

Finally, then, we’ve reached the crux of this morning’s musings. Why have people stopped changing gear? Have their kickdowns broken, or are they simply all too lazy? Since when did it become acceptable to spend half an hour on the wrong side of the road making an overtaking manoeuvre, just to avoid going past 2500 rpm? I was followed to work this morning by a Volvo S80, and as I powered up the hills in third, he fell away time and again. Now, I refuse to believe that he had fewer horses than my ailing T-series, so it must have been a conscious refusal to drop a cog. Doesn’t he know that he’s now being criticised by the driver of a Rover 800, for crying out loud? Has the man no shame?

A message to the people of Britain, and those of the A429 in particular: For God’s sake, get busy with the lever next to the handbrake once in a while. It’ll have benefits which will far outweigh the .001mpg it might cost you. You will help ease congestion, you will get to work more quickly, and you will lower my blood pressure. Finally, something strange and unexpected might start to happen.

You might start to enjoy driving again.