x Abu Dhabi, UAETuesday 23 January 2018

Are hybrids a good solution?

As conventional cars are getting more frugal with their fuel economy, David Booth wonders whether there is any point to hybrids.

Ford's Fusion is the best hybrid I've ever tested. Not only is Ford's semi-electrified sedan relatively frugal - it averaged 7.3L/100km under my leaden foot compared with the roughly 10L/100km that the base Fusion suffered under much the same torture - it was pleasant to drive. As well, it felt peppier and livelier than the base four-cylinder 2.5L Fusion.

Not only that, the Fusion impressed with its civility. Despite having a continuously variable transmission (CVT), the Fusion's four-banger never droned on like a nagging mother-in-law, Ford having minimised the engine bay's dissonance by keeping the revs relatively low.

The Fusion's electric abilities also impress - that's why its fuel economy is so darned frugal around town, dipping below 7L/100 km despite my being late for every meeting/lunch/training session I ever schedule.

There's only one small, niggling problem. It still doesn't make any sense.

Oh, one could almost justify its roughly Dh30,000 premium over the similarly equipped SEL Fusion by the money saved annually if you drove 24,000km a year. Of course, it would take about nine years for those savings to pay off.

Despite those glowing attributes, one can't help but think that there's a far easier way to achieve much the same fuel economy savings. For example, Chevrolet's new Eco version of its Cruze compact can accomplish roughly the same fuel consumption while costing about half as much money.

Powered by a small 1.4L turbocharged engine mated to a conventional six-speed automatic, the Cruze Eco may lack the Fusion's complicated drive-train but it betters the Ford's official rating on the motorway. Of course, the Hybrid has the slight advantage in city driving, but that advantage pales when you're paying almost Dh58,000 for such a paltry advantage.

Nor is all that money necessarily buying you a better car. Thanks to the impressive low-end torque from the Eco's blown 1.4L four, which keeps the revs remarkably low for such a small engine, it actually cruises with less drama than the Hybrid and passes large trucks with much the same ease.

But, it's an unfair comparison, you protest; the Fusion is, after all, a family-sized car while the Cruze is but a compact. Surely, that must justify at least a portion of the price difference.

The problem with that argument is that the Fusion Hybrid is a relatively small "family" sedan, its 99.8 cubic inch total interior volume among the smallest in its segment, while the Cruze, nominally sold as a compact by Chevrolet, actually squeaks into the same "family" category with 95.0 cubic feet of interior space. In real life, the Cruze is all but as roomy as the Fusion, besting it in front head-room, equal in front legroom and only suffering a modest deficit in rear legroom. Indeed, because of its onboard batteries eating up trunk space the hybrid version of the Fusion boasts far less cargo space than the Cruze - 11.8 cubic feet versus the Chevy's 15.0.

In the end, while the Fusion remains a laudable effort, I can't help but think that, like all current parallel-type hybrids (I am not including plug-in hybrids nor range-extended EVs such as the Chevrolet Volt), it's a lot of complication and expense for precious little reward. Proponents will retort that the Fusion Hybrid is now a couple of years old while the Cruze Eco benefits from more recent technological advancements.

But that's the point; if a conventionally powered car can all but match the performance and frugality of a complicated hybrid with just a few more years of development, why bother with hybrids at all?

To mark Earth Week, The National directs its focus on the environment with Green Issues, highlighting the need for education and attention to the needs of our planet.