Big luxury hybrids: Barely better for the planet than standard gas-guzzlers

Luxury hybrid's not so greenNot all hybrid cars are created equal. And not every car with a hybrid badge gets a green pass, either. In fact some of the big luxury hybrids have environmental profiles far worse than an average sedan, but they're marketed and thought of as paragons for the planet.

Given what I do for a living, I appreciate the value of hybrid cars. I remember standing enthralled at auto shows in late 1999 as Toyota Priuses first hit our shores. There were bigger and shinier cars on the floor, but that early Prius looked like something new, and so it proved. It's the bestselling car in Japan, and dominates the 3% of the U.S. market devoted to hybrids. But the Prius has a genuine claim to make: It gets 50 miles per gallon and has really low emissions.

Dealer shows a Cadillac hybridMany hybrids can make no such claim.

Let's start with the Lexus LS 600h. What was Toyota's Lexus division thinking? For $106,035, "the ultimate luxury hybrid sedan" gets 20 mpg in the city, 22 highway. TV ads depict it streaking through green forests, a speedy blur somehow at one with its environment. It's not surprising this 430-horsepower, five-liter V-8 big rig hasn't sold well. It's hard to imagine the demographic it's designed for.

Lexus praises the LS 600's "jaw-dropping engine performance, fuel economy and emissions," and declares it to have "best-in-V8-class fuel efficiency," but that's a pretty rarefied class. Remember, 20 mpg in town, 22 on the highway. "Drivers can enjoy an ideal blend of luxury, performance, and fuel efficiency," the company says. But an ideal blend would start with a lighter, less-powerful car.

Other examples, from the GM stable, include the Chevrolet Tahoe, GMC Sierra and the Cadillac Escalade hybrids. If the EPA adopts its proposed window sticker letter grades, the big GM hybrids would rate a not-so-good B-. The Escalade, for instance, gets mileage almost identical to, but slightly worse than, the Lexus 600h: 20 mpg city, 21 highway. Sure, a regular Escalade gets around 12 mpg, but you'll pay a big premium for the "green version," which starts at $73,425.

Nevertheless, GM tells me the Escalade Hybrid "progressively synthesizes comfort, performance and intelligent efficiency."

Not to leave the Germans out, the BMW X6 ActiveHybrid ("Efficiency for every pace," but at $88,900, not for every wallet), can reach 60 mph in just 5.4 seconds, but it gulps gas at an alarming rate: 17 city, 19 highway. Oddly, this video shows it as a sort of blurred mass moving on a rustic road. We get it, it's fast, it's "green."

Other entries in this category include the Mercedes S400 Hybrid, and the Lexus RX450h. Dan Becker, director of the Safe Climate Campaign at the Center for Auto Safety, describes these tarted-up trophy cars in certain terms. "Installing a hybrid system in a luxury SUV is like putting lipstick on a pig," he said. "People who are looking for a hybrid want a clean, efficient vehicle."

Luke Tonachel, a vehicles analyst at the Natural Resources Defense Council, adds that cars like the Escalade Hybrid "are only a green option relative to other vehicles of the same size, and if it's the size you absolutely need."

I tend to argue with the idea that anyone "needs" a huge SUV with off-road capacity and four-wheel drive. Few people with one of those goes off-road. Nationwide only 10% of SUV owners venture from the beaten path.

But big SUV hybrids have at least one defender in the green community. John DeCicco, a former Environmental Defense Fund clean-car advocate and current senior lecturer at the University of Michigan, says, "People should buy the most efficient car that meets their needs and their budget. If they care about the environment and oil security, that may well mean buying a hybrid."

DeCicco argues that some people's needs run big, and if so, they're better off in a hybrid SUV than the standard car, which is a few mpg worse. Fair enough. Automakers argue they can make more of a dent in overall fuel economy if they go after the high-volume segment of the market. But that's only true if these cars sold well. For the most part, they don't.

You want a hybrid hit? It's the Prius.

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