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Is ‘hybrid’ in danger of becoming the new ‘organic’?

Strained analogyIs “hybrid” technology in danger of becoming a feel-good slogan that has more to do with conspicuous environmentalism than with reducing fuel use?

Jamie Lincoln Kitman, the New York bureau chief for Automobile Magazine, warns that in the rush to embrace all-things hybrid, consumers and governments might be missing the forest for the trees:

…like fat-free desserts, which sound healthy but can still make you fat, the hybrid car can make people feel as if they’re doing something good, even when they’re doing nothing special at all. As consumers and governments at every level climb onto the hybrid bandwagon, there is the very real danger of elevating the technology at the expense of the intended outcome — saving gas….

Several bills floating around Congress, for instance, have proposed tax incentives to buyers of hybrid cars, irrespective of their gas mileage. Thus, under one failed but sure to resurface formulation, the suburbanite who buys a hypothetical hybrid Dodge Durango that gets 14 miles per gallon instead of 12 thanks to its second, electric power source would be entitled to a huge tax incentive, while the buyer of a conventional, gasoline-powered Honda Civic that delivers 40 miles per gallon on the open road gets none.

There is a rough analogy to be made here with the “organic” appellation for certain foods. Consumers who buy organic foods are generally interested in more wholesome and environmentally friendly products. But a lack of standards have allowed opportunistic marketers to offer a host of products of dubious origin under the organic banner. Consumers, seeking a shorthand for quality, are easy prey to this type of misdirection.

Kitman tells an analogous story of environmentally-minded car buyers who are considering the Lexus 400H, a hybrid SUV that gets worse mileage than many conventional SUVs, and far worse mileage than many conventional sedans. In the case of the Lexus, the hybrid technology is used to provide extra speed, not gas savings.

The lesson here, of course, is do your homework. Which, when you’re talking about a $46,000 light truck, is kind of a no-brainer. Hybrid or no, the vehicle’s fuel economy rating is the place to start. And remember that if you log most of your miles on the highway, a hybrid may not do you — or the environment — much good.

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