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.

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