Never Stop Driving #56: EVs or Hybrids?

The recent front page of the trade publication Automotive News perfectly illustrated the conflicting nature of our automotive times. Two of the three articles cover the future of personal transportation: One headline touts Toyota’s plan for an EV with a 900-mile range and another highlights the dedicated and often risky handoff between robot and human drivers. The third, however, speaks to the reality that gasoline-powered cars and trucks will be with us for a long time: GM is investing $2 billion to develop the next generation of pickups and SUVs.

Toyota announced wide-ranging plans for EVs, battery research, and the factories to build them. Japan’s leading automaker has been accused of moving too slowly in this revolution and being at risk of being left behind as other companies pour billions into battery R+D. Ford, for example,  recently received a $9.2 billion loan to invest in battery research and production. But I think the criticisms directed at Toyota, while fascinating, are for the most part unfair. The company’s outgoing president, Akio Toyoda, has said EVs are too expensive for most people and that increasing the number of hybrid-powered cars with small batteries is a more effective strategy for reducing CO2. Based on the well-documented challenges of building the battery supply chain, he has a point. (I’ve shared this article on the topic before).

Akio Toyoda Tokyo Motor Show 2019
Tomohiro Ohsumi/Getty Images

The irony here is that Toyota popularized the modern gas-electric hybrid. It’s easy to forget what a moonshot the original Prius was when it debuted some 25 years ago. The magic was and is the Toyota-developed transmission that integrates two electric motors and the gas engine. Effective. Durable. Engineering genius. I don’t have room here to explain this complicated mechanical device works, but this video—now viewed over 700,000 times—does a decent job.

2010 3rd gen prius

I first drove the third-generation Prius around 2012. It was comfortable, quiet, and delivered over 40 mpg no matter how this lead-foot drove. Amazing. At the time VW was touting its diesel technology as an alternative fuel-saving technology, but we know how that turned out. Toyoda could be accused of being self-serving in his desire to focus on hybrids, but I believed him when he said he was speaking for a “silent majority” when he expressed reservations about making EVs the only option for buyers.

Toyoda’s logic is simple: One 100-kilowatt-hour (that’s the amount of energy stored, like the capacity of a gas tank) Tesla Model S battery could be divided among 10 Prius plug-in hybrids, which deliver about 30 miles of electric-only range before the gas engine kicks on. The Department of Transportation reported that most people drive fewer than 40 miles a day, so, in theory, more people would be driving more often on EV power if they were driving Priuses. Sure, the Tesla can go some 400 miles on a single charge, but how often do most people need that capability? Furthermore, a Prius costs a third as much as the Model S. Want more people driving EVs? Make more cars like the Prius, something that could be done today. Instead, the auto industry seems focused on delivering EVs with ever greater range, including Toyota.

As I’ve often written, we’re in a messy transitional time where PR and public opinion often outweigh basic engineering. Let’s move on.

The highlight of my week was hearing about a vintage Mustang that was rebuilt by Prodrive, which is located in the heart of the UK motorsports industry. The wizards there modified the vintage Stang to endure the punishment of off-road rallies while retaining its original appearance. You might remember Prodrive for the Subaru rally cars it once raced and this Ferrari 550 Maranello race car. Some years ago, I visited Prodrive and saw the expertise inside its factory walls, so I’m sure the Mustang is fantastic to drive.

I’m still enjoying follow-up material from the NASCAR Le Mans effort, including this terrific explainer video. Last fall, I interviewed Jeff Gordon at Hendrick Motorsports and saw the Le Mans stock car as it was being built. Gordon asked me not to take pictures while he giddily explained the project. His enthusiasm made me think we might see him behind the wheel, but, alas, he passed on the opportunity.

Last week’s report about the new Acura Integra Type S, a $50K sports sedan that is only available with a manual transmission, has me seriously thinking about a new car. Acura recognizes that plenty of us are in no rush to hand over driving to robots. Bravo.

If you’re enjoying our daily production of free car-love material, please help us by joining the Hagerty Drivers Club. You can also contribute to the community by sharing your roadside repair story here. I love these tales because I’ve had so many myself.

Just weeks before this photo was taken in 2019, the engine was in pieces and I put it together in my garage. I had never rebuilt a motor before, yet I thought it was a good idea to drive the car to Florida almost immediately after getting it back together. Here, in Florida, I’m fixing it yet again. The engine was fine; the fuel-pump relay was not. I managed to hobble the car to its destination. Then I sold it, which as usual, was a mistake. What a pretty shape. Larry Webster

I’m off next week for the holiday so this newsletter is taking a one-week break. I hope you and your family have a wonderful Fourth!

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    Well, maybe if they make the Prius look as attractive as the Tesla, might that idea take off with more enthusiasm?
    Seriously, though, the logic is undebatable, which is why it’ll likely be shot down…

    I hadn’t until I read your question. I looked it up, and yes, it is much improved in the looks category!

    I remember riding in that 924 Turbo while you were on our 2019 Amelia Island or Bust road trip. Thanks for the ride to dinner on that cold evening in Maggie Valley! Cheers.

    Some Teslas look great. Some not at all (oddly stretched-in-spots Dodge Neons). Much of the press chooses to praise all.

    Toyoda was/is correct. Emissions less and free use, the reality of making a difference is furthered much faster with hybrid. Could have been furthered much faster 40 years ago with most urban/fleet vehicles running propane as well (33% emissions savings according I read some time ago).

    I think hybrids are a better solution for this particular point in time. Especially for people who can only afford a single vehicle, but who want to do their part to reduce carbon emissions. In my situation, I work from home and most of my commuting is local to me, so I could likely do a large percent on the electric batteries. But, I also take a few long road trips a year, so having the gas engine as a backup would work for that.

    Bought a used 2012 Volt. Sorry guys but the car is good, especially with it being a hybrid. GM should still be making these. Why buy a used Volt? The battery pack was replaced, not even a year old and I have the warranty. The tires were new and the car, black on black, looked like new. Price was about the same as the battery pack so why not? Like it better than the Prius. Did you hear that GM?

    The reason most automakers are rushing to get out EVs is because the government is making it impossible not to. With no incentive to do what the market wants because use of the heavy hand of regulation, PHEVs, the better choice, along with range-extenders, another great choice, especially for a transition, are left behind.

    Totally agree on the Hybrid concept for the near term future. We have 2 Gen 3 Prii (?), 2012 and 2013, 180k on one, 125k on the other. Wife has 49mpg lifetime, I have 53. Zero unplanned maintenance on both cars. (Now I’ve jinxed it!) Well, actually there was a brake issue ($2,400 the dealer said) that was covered under warranty. I believe they are the best cars on the road. Hard pass on the gen 4, but the new gen 5 look pretty nice. Do agree with the plug in concept, but the gen 3s PiP were kinda dissed. Might get one someday…

    I liked the brief teaser on the ProDrive Mustang, but as an engineer/tech geek, I was left wanting because the article gave almost no details on the build process or specs on the car. How about a deep dive into its build!

    I agree that (right now) hybrids (and plug-in hybrids) are better than pure EV’s but I would like to know why car hybrids are electrically assisted gasoline cars instead of being like trains, fully electric drivetrains with a tiny motor that is only use to charged the battery if/when needed. The batteries would be larger than current hybrids but smaller than EV’s.

    I will be getting my next car this fall, and it will be electric. But the reason I have that luxury is that the family car is a hybrid, so when we do take long trips ….

    Meanwhile, until EVs that are as nimble and fun as my Miata come out, I’ll be keeping it as my weekend toy.

    The point? There is no one answer. However, as we see everywhere around us, we do need to do something about reducing emissions.

    Look this is a tough choice here.

    By far the EV is better than any hybrid. The trouble is the price of batteries was going down but the economy had put a hold on that.

    Hybrids are not much help for automakers as they still have to meet tougher emissions. They are more complicated and they are more difficult to repair. The MPG is not all that much better if it is not a golf car looking car. Even cars like the Volt are on gas most of the time so why bother.

    Here is the deal. GM and some of the other MFGS while they are promoting EV they are building two different lines. One ICE and one EV. This is why we have two Blazers and two Equinox etc.

    The government needs to be proactive in helping the automakers in the transition with one improving the economy. Second this whole project needs to be on a sliding scale as you can’ just always set a date and expect everything to meet that dead line if the tech or economics are not there.

    Second forcing EV models also make some reject them even more.

    Accept for trips most of Americans could easily live with a EV. Most never out drive the range and they have a place to charge. The real hand up is the cost yet. Cars in general are too expensive and the EV models are still not as cost effective as they need to be.

    The planet is not going to melt down if you work with the industry and try to help cost and bring things in line before you force it on the public.

    It just needs a little common sense but that is one think in short supply in DC.

    “As I’ve often written, we’re in a messy transitional time where opinion and IGNORANCE often outweigh basic engineering. Let’s move on.”

    There, I fixed it for you.

    Nobody ever wantes to talk about the BIG +/- 30 in the room of alternative energy:
    30% loss in range/charge below 30F
    30% additional weight of spent batteries/motors to haul around once gasoline engine kicks in.
    30% of BASEPLATE RATING is OUTPUT of calmed wind machines.
    ” ” ” ” dimmed solar panels.

    Even at this late date, more than 30% of the media are ignorant of these facts of alterntaive energy life.

    i stopped subscribing to all car magazines several years ago because of the endless storys about EVs and suv’s. i do have two pickup trucks both with regular cabs and eight foot boxes, I say put the lead back in the gasoline ,take a look at what fifty years of the clean air act has given us, as in congress……etc.

    ok back to the hybrid v EV subject i have allways felt the hybrid was the perfect solution ,as a lifelong mechanic i worked on several second gen prius and thought how well they were enginered and were a good idea for most everyday drivers,however in the article the silent majority was mentioned and i would prefer a choice of gas or electric vehicles, unfortunately there are two sides to the climate “crisis” and one side is being silenced by threats boycotts, hardly the way to move forward

    Well Larry, I read about the differing product philosophies of the big five? And I have to say that Toyotas
    ‘s seem to make the most sense from a transitional approach. Battery only vehicles have too many limitations when it come to medium to large payloads as well as large towing duties. Hydrogen power had been thrown around as an option in some quarters, but it would come with many of the same infrastructure hurdles that electric is dealing with currently. So yes, ICE is going to be around for sometime, particularly for these more commercial leaning applications.

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