Last Updated Jan 12, 2010 3:12 PM EST
The original hybrid automobiles were good for the planet and
great for your conscience, but they didn’t exactly provide a rush of
adrenaline when you hit the accelerator. They offered competent but drab
transportation for the übergreen set. Now, a growing number of luxurious,
planet-friendly models cater to tree huggers in tuxedos who prefer topflight
appointments and have the means to pay for them.
MoneyWatch.com road-tested three luxury hybrids — a Mercedes,
Lexus, and Cadillac — and came away pretty impressed. (We’re
also telling you about the Fisker Karma and BMW X6 ActiveHybrid, although we
haven’t been allowed to drive them yet.)
Two big caveats: First, you’ll pay a stiff premium
over non-hybrid versions. Also, because these are big, safe luxury cars, the
added weight of such things as batteries, massive engines, and heavy doors that
go clunk generally drags down fuel economy. So don’t consider one of
these beauties if you’re hoping for bragging rights about superior
mileage. Of the five, only the Fisker Karma (a plug-in that runs partly on
electricity) is expected to improve on the fuel economy of the humble $15,000
Toyota Corolla (26 mpg city/35 mpg highway).
Before getting to the reviews, a short course on hybrid
technology. The cars employ three types of hybrid systems: Mild hybrids
(Mercedes and Lexus) use their electric motors just to provide extra power for
accelerating and high-speed cruising; they never run on battery power alone.
Full hybrids (Cadillac and BMW) have larger motors and battery packs; they can
start out in electric mode, before the gas engine kicks in. Plug-ins (Fisker)
have bigger battery packs, the ability to recharge from a wall outlet, and
offer 30 to 50 miles of all-electric cruising.
2010 Mercedes-Benz S400 Hybrid
Lowdown: Mercedes could be accused of creating its
hybrid as an afterthought, responding to American market demands. The company’s
heart is plainly in the diesels U.S. consumers stubbornly refuse to buy. But
the sleek 2010 Mercedes-Benz
S400 Hybrid has the manifold virtues of Mercedes’ big
sedans — effortless high-speed cruising, top-quality interior design,
and cutting-edge tech features. Consider it a car for executives whose kids (or
grandkids) have been bugging them about environmental responsibility. It’s
not a major departure from the company’s non-hybrids, but a supplemental
electric motor gives it modest green credentials — 26 mpg highway is
better than most luxury hybrids.
Performance: Under the hood, a fuel-efficient
275-horsepower V-6 connects to a seven-speed automatic transmission. Its
relatively small 15-kilowatt electric motor adds power under heavy loads,
restarts the engine and — after the car shuts off at stoplights —
aids in pulling away. But the electric motor never actually drives the car.
This five-seater href="http://blogs.thecarconnection.com/marty-blog/1016108_2009-mercedes-benz-s400-hybrid-lithium-ion-hits-the-streets">is the first hybrid car with a lithium-ion battery
pack, which promises improved power and less weight than
nickel-metal-hydride packs. The hybrid’s 7.2-seconds from zero to 62
mph is roughly comparable to the S400 V-6.
Luxury features: The S400 is the starter-level model
in the “S” Class, but it comes fully equipped. A
facelift adds new design elements, LED lighting, and a host of high-tech safety
features, including headlights that automatically dim for oncoming traffic,
lane-departure warnings, and driver drowsiness monitoring. In keeping with its
green theme, 85 percent of the materials are recyclable, and 45 components are
made from recycled plastics. But don’t worry: the interior trim wood
veneer is authentic.
Fuel economy: 19 mpg city/26 mpg highway
Drawbacks: It’s heavy — at more
than 4,500 pounds — and pricey.
Reviewers say: “For
2010, the Mercedes-Benz ‘S’ Class gains its first-ever
hybrid powertrain, a clear indication that its maker is finally acknowledging
the worth of hybrids as an essential step on the path to electric propulsion.” —
2010 Lexus LS 600h
Lowdown: This is the ultimate luxury hybrid sedan, a
performance mothership so high-tech that href="http://www.amazon.com/Star-Trek-Chri-Pine/dp/B002HWRYJE">Captain Kirk would pilot it with approval.
The 2010 Lexus
LS 600h is fast and almost effortless to drive, with a hushed
cabin that lets you listen to the 19-speaker stereo with minimal intrusion.
Adapted from the non-hybrid LS 460, the six-figure-priced LS 600h is now
offered as a long-wheelbase “L” model, with five extra
inches of rear legroom. (We road-tested the 2009 model, which differs in minor
cosmetic ways from the 2010, but the driving experience is essentially the
Performance: The five-liter V-8 starts with
389 horsepower, but the electric motor pushes output to 438 (more than twice
that of the four-cylinder Toyota Camry). Switch to “Eco”
mode and performance is slightly more modest but fuel economy improves.
Luxury features: It would almost be easier to list
features not on this car. It comes with an audiophile-quality Mark
Levinson stereo, voice-activated navigation (with live traffic updates), heated
seats that also offer a built-in massage and reclining option in the back seat,
plus a rear camera to avoid backup accidents. Options include sci-fi gizmos
such as an infrared skin-temperature sensor system to automatically adjust heat
and A/C. The LS 600h’s Advanced Parking Guidance System can also tuck
the car away for the night, steering and manipulating the gas pedal. Pull up
parallel to a spot, put the car in reverse, and the href="http://gizmodo.com/196551/lexus-self-parking-car-video-and-review">computer control takes over, with sonar to measure the
Fuel economy: 20 mpg city/22 mpg highway
Drawbacks: The price is outrageously high, especially
for fuel economy in the low 20s. If the LS 600h is too rich for your blood,
consider the $34,200 Lexus HS250H (34 mpg city/35 mpg
highway), a near-luxury version of the Toyota Camry Hybrid.
Reviewers say: “The Lexus LS
600h L is the grandest href="http://www.thecarconnection.com/style/hybrid">hybrid sedan on the market, with some of
the world’s most advanced technology features and luxuries that rival
those in top German sedans.” — href="http://www.thecarconnection.com/bottomline/lexus_ls-600h-l_2009">The Car Connection
2010 Cadillac Escalade Hybrid
Lowdown: As the ride of choice for Queen Latifah, Shaquille
O’Neal, Ludacris, and Justin Timberlake, the seven-seat href="http://www.cadillac.com">2010 Cadillac Escalade
Hybrid has won a starring role in many hip-hop videos. This is
also a car for those who travel with the Cub Scout pack in the 90210 area code.
A behemoth that’s more at home on city streets than in the
backcountry, the Escalade Hybrid marries GM’s SUV brawn (it’s
a Chevy Tahoe hybrid under the sheet metal) and Cadillac’s upscale
appointments. Its new hybrid system, a major advance from the mild electric
assist in previous models, improves fuel economy 50 percent. But hold the
trumpets. We’re talking about city mileage moving from a dismal 12
mpg to a so-so 20. It’s hard to make serious environmental claims for
a car that takes up so much space and returns such marginal fuel economy.
Still, the Escalade drives well (we road-tested the 2009, which performs
exactly as the 2010 will), although parking can be a chore.
Performance: The 332-horsepower, six-liter V-8 engine
is connected to two 80-horsepower AC electric motors and a 300-volt battery
pack located behind the second row of seats. Cylinder deactivation can shut off
four cylinders at cruising speeds to further conserve fuel. Like most full
hybrids, the Escalade starts out in electric-only mode if you accelerate
gently, but its range on batteries is only about a mile.
Luxury features: The base car is well equipped, with
such features as remote start, a power liftgate, and a rearview camera. But
Cadillac pumps into the Platinum edition (costing $12,000 more) just about
everything on the base car’s option list, plus a full set of LED
headlights that last 20 times longer than halogens, and a rear entertainment
system with a pair of screens in the front seatbacks. GPS navigation is standard
in the Platinum, as is magnetic ride control, which automatically adjusts to
Price: $73,425-$75,975 (base); $85,225 to $87,725
Fuel economy: 20 mpg city/21 mpg highway
Drawbacks: Awkward in city driving, not particularly
fuel efficient, and expensive
Reviewers say: “Fuel mileage
is better than the regular Escalade’s, but the price premium is
pretty high.” — Car and Driver Buyer’s Guide
2010 BMW X6 ActiveHybrid
BMW X6 ActiveHybrid, BMW’s first full hybrid, hits
showrooms in December. It’s an SUV that’s not really
intended for off-roaders; think of it as more like Porsche’s
high-performance Cayenne with a utility bonus. BMW will offer href="http://news.cnet.com/8301-13512_3-10351624-23.html">the ActiveHybrid
7, a mild hybrid version of its big 7-Series luxury sedan, next
Performance: The dual-mode ActiveHybrid system —
a close cousin of the Escalade’s — consists of a powerful
twin-turbo, 400-horsepower V-8 engine, two electric motors (producing 91 and 86
horsepower), and a nickel metal hydride battery pack under the luggage floor.
This BMW starts running on one electric motor and when more power is needed,
the second starts the gas engine, and then acts as a generator to supply
electric power. With a possible 480 horsepower, the X6 ActiveHybrid is no
slouch on the road. It can hit 60 mph in an astonishing 5.4 seconds. The car
can also reach 37 mph in full-electric mode, but its electric range is limited
to 1.6 miles.
Luxury features: Like the Mercedes S400, the BMW X6
ActiveHybrid features advanced safety features, including crash-activated
headrests. Twenty-inch light alloy wheels are standard, as are bright Bi-Xenon
Price: Not finalized, but likely to be in the high
Fuel economy: BMW isn’t saying yet, but
expect an approximately 20 percent fuel-economy boost from the non-hybrid V-8
or roughly 18 mpg combined city/highway.
Drawbacks: The X6’s boast that
title="its carbon emissions are 20 per cent less than those of a regular X6">its carbon dioxide emissions are 20 percent less than
those of a regular X6 is less than meets the eye. href="http://www.guardian.co.uk/environment/2009/sep/10/bmw-activehybrid-x6">As the Guardian has reported, 231
grams per kilometer is double href="http://www.guardian.co.uk/business/2009/jul/31/toyota-prius-review"
title="twice the emissions of a Toyota Prius">the
emissions of a Toyota Prius.
Reviewers say: “On the scale of political
incorrectness, the BMW X6 contends for the top slot with such behemoths as the
Porsche Cayenne, Hummer H2, and Cadillac Escalade. ... The bad-boy BMW makes
its case by being not only huge, but loud, thirsty, unconscionably fast, and
the least practical of the bunch, too. ... With what promises to be a mountain
of torque available from idle, the hybrid X6 may prove as entertaining to drive
as its conventional brethren.” — href="http://www.caranddriver.com/news/spied/09q3/2010_bmw_x6_hybrid-spied">Car and Driver
2010 Fisker Karma
Lowdown: Fisker, based in Irvine, Calif., is an
ambitious startup href="http://www.autoguide.com/auto-news/2009/03/fisker-announces-north-american-dealer-network.html">with 32 dealers that will start selling its
high-performance hybrid in 2010. href="http://karma.fiskerautomotive.com/pages/preorder">Fisker is currently taking $5,000 deposits to preorder the Karma ($25,000 for the Karma S convertible), and anticipation is running high for the
Fisker Karma sedan, which is as curvy as href="http://www.imdb.com/name/nm1083271/">Megan
Fox. No surprise: Al Gore is on the waiting list. The Karma promises
an intoxicating package of exhilarating driving, sumptuous comfort, and
environmental performance so stellar (67 combined mpg!) that Greenpeace members
could drive it with pride. Target audience: price-is-no-object buyers in search
of coolness and green credits.
Performance: The home recharge will give the Karma a
50-mile range on pure battery power. When the battery runs out, its Q Drive
system kicks in with a turbocharged two-liter, four-cylinder engine that acts
as a generator to supply the electric motor and lets the car go another 250
miles. You’ll get more than 400 horsepower when the Karma’s
gas engine and electric motor combine to hurl the car from zero to 60 mph in
less than six seconds.
Luxury features: A solar roof makes a modest stab at
recharging the batteries; you can also use the solar panel to run the
climate-control system. The luxurious interior is gilded with social
responsibility: The “EcoChic” model is animal-free, leather
is replaced with soft bamboo viscose and the center console is made of layered
EcoGlass framing fossilized leaves. If you still eat meat, order the “EcoSport”
and get leather seats (sustainably produced, naturally).
Price: $87,900 (minus a $7,500 federal tax credit for
Fuel economy: The company says the Karma will have a
combined 67 mpg equivalent, with an operating cost of just three cents per
Drawbacks: Experimental technology, plus
as-yet-untested quality and dealer support. It may take a while to get one. Put
down $5,000 now and your car is likely to be in the driveway next May.
Reviewers say: “The
Karma — also known as the most badass hybrid sportscar you’ve
probably never heard of ... The unofficial dream car of Earth Day.” —
More on MoneyWatch:
- Cadillac Escalade and Lexus: Hybrid Reality Check
- href="http://moneywatch.bnet.com/saving-money/article/6-american-cars-worth-buying-now/338698/">6 American Cars Worth Buying Now
- href="http://moneywatch.bnet.com/economic-news/video/tesla-test-drive-time-to-try-an-american-car/339342/">Tesla Test-Drive: Time to Try an American Car
- href="http://moneywatch.bnet.com/economic-news/article/6-myths-about-gas-mileage/317188/">6 Big Myths about Gas Mileage
- Skip the Hybrid ... for a Diesel?
- href="http://moneywatch.bnet.com/economic-news/article/the-best-time-to-buy-a-car-is--right-now/326546/">The Best Time to Buy a Car Is ... Now
- href="http://moneywatch.bnet.com/saving-money/blog/family-finance/the-perfect-car-for-a-teenager/608/">The Perfect Car for a Teenager