Internal Combustion: Far From Dead

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Many of us have that friend who never stops talking about their hybrid and/or EV. The best way to summarize their continuous ramblings goes something like: "I just got XX mpg driving in the city yesterday! Do you want to know what I got on the highway?!" Not really. Holden Caulfield from The Catcher in the Rye partly defined boring conversation as people discussing their car's fuel mileage.

And when doing one's best to ignore this ongoing source of self-righteousness, there's growing evidence that the hybrid/EV hype may have already plateaued. It's been 14 years since the Toyota Prius debuted and it's gone on to become a favorite for environmentalists, numerous celebrities, and trend setters. Nearly all automakers today offer hybrids which have continued to be sales successes. All told, worldwide sales of the Prius have topped 2 million units and the U.S. alone has sold over 1.6 million hybrids.

With everything from the Chevrolet Tahoe Hybrid to the Honda Insight, America is the global market leader in hybrid sales. Now that EV's are here, such as the Nissan Leaf, it's equally important to notice that several new cars running solely on that supposed cranky old internal combustion engine are hitting the 40 mpg mark. The EPA has rated the current generation Prius with a combined 50 mpg. They have now just given the new Chevrolet Cruze Eco a 28/42 mpg rating, surpassing GM's original 40 mpg target.

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Yes, I can see that that number is not as high as the Prius, but that's not the point. It proves that the familiar gasoline engine is still highly capable of shooting down the hybrid/EV hype. After 100 years of engineering and perfecting the internal combustion engine, engineers are now finding new ways to achieve high fuel economy numbers with the help of numerous technological, material, and design advancements. Not even 25 years ago did start/stop technology, variable valve timing, and direct injection with computer-controlled injectors exist.

Now, engineers are utilizing all three combined with smaller engines and turbochargers. Top Gear's Jeremy Clarkson's recent remark that the Toyota Prius has already traveled 100,000 miles before it has left the dealership lot is spot on because in terms of environmental impact, the Prius is not as green as many want to believe. Its battery construction alone consists of mining the nickel in Canada, sending it to Japan for processing, and shipping the final product back to North America (and the rest of the world) for sale certainly increases C02 levels in the atmosphere.

Driving a gas-saving Prius, in the big picture, does little to help the birds in the sky or the air we breathe. Rising gasoline prices? Undoubtedly an issue, but has anyone even considered the eventual likelihood of increased mining prices and the further exploitation of Third World mining countries, specifically in Africa? Fortunately, automakers are innovating more than ever to meet government emission standards without the battery. And remember, consumers absorb the nearly $20,000 premium it costs automakers to buy those batteries.


Above all, pure electrics are unproven in real world driving as consumers rightly worry about range anxiety. The Chevrolet Volt is an exception with its 99 mpg rating (and small gasoline engine), but its base price is still $35,000 - even after tax breaks. The Cruze Eco, Ford Focus (SE Sedan with super fuel economy package), and Hyundai Elantra (every trim level), all achieve at least 40 mpg highway and each cost under $30,000. Within the next decade, we'll be seeing even more advances in gasoline engine technologies.

And if anyone has noticed, I haven't even mentioned clean-burning diesels yet. But since I just did, in 2010 the Volkswagen BlueMotion won the World Green Car of the Year, beating out both the Prius and Insight. Batteries not included.


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