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Shades of Green: Why Not All Hybrids Are Eco-Wonderful

As he strode around the New York International Auto Show, Jim Kliesch of the Union of Concerned Scientists singled out the 2011 Chevrolet Cruze Eco as the "car of the show." Why? The unassuming Eco manages to extract 41 mpg from a conventional, non-hybrid drivetrain. The secret: lighter components and a good aerodynamic profile.

Kliesch's larger point was that cars don't have to be hybrids to be green. And in fact, the UCS points out an interesting corollary: Not all hybrids are particularly green.

On its recently launched Hybrid Scorecard, the UCS charges that the BMW ActiveHybrid X6 "squanders" its hybrid drivetrain. "We're glad BMW came out with a hybrid, but the ActiveHybrid X6 just boosts the power of the already sizeable V-8 engine and reduces greenhouse gas emissions only 17 percent from the standard X6," says Don Anair, a senior vehicles analyst at UCS. "The BMW doesn't make any gains in reducing smog-forming emissions, either."

Conversely, the UCS praises the Mercedes-Benz S400 Hybrid. Like the BMW in that it's the company's first gas-electric model, the hybrid system in the S400 essentially compensates for the bigger car's added weight, Anair said, with the result that it ties the smaller E350 in fuel economy.

Rating hybrid cars is a useful exercise, because the public is inclined to automatically give hybrids an environmental pass. But they're not all created equal.

The UCS Hybrid Scorecard rates more than 30 hybrids, made by Ford, GM, Toyota, Honda, Nissan, BMW and Mercedes-Benz. Its top performer is, not surprisingly, the Toyota Prius, which gets a 9.8 out 10 for its fuel economy and its ability to reduce both smog emissions and greenhouse gases (44 percent less of the latter than the comparison vehicle, the Toyota Matrix).

Tied for second are the Honda Civic Hybrid and the nearly identical Ford Fusion and Mercury Milan Hybrids (all with 7.8 scores). The BMW X6 gets a low score of 4.4, and the Mercedes S400 does only slightly better with a 5.5. The lowest rated are both discontinued GM vehicles.

The Lexus RX is billed as "the world's only luxury crossover hybrid," and a number of current hybrids (especially from Lexus) play up their high-end aspirations. But UCS is leery of luxury hybrids, saying they are larded down with extras that drive up costs.

"Hybrids don't have to be luxury vehicles," said Anair. "They should be within the reach of all Americans. Car buyers shouldn't be forced to buy high-end bells and whistles when fuel economy and reducing emissions are their top priority."

The UCS guide rates each vehicle on its provision of what it calls "forced features" and reports that even mid-market cars fall into this trap: The Honda Civic Hybrid has more than $3,000 worth and the Ford Fusion Hybrid nearly $4,000. The worst forced offender, the environmental group said, is the Lexus LS 600h L, which comes with $17,000 of such add-ons compared to the conventional LS 460L. The BMW ActiveHybrid's $10,000 in forced features include a deluxe sound system.

To be fair, BMW has some stellar eco-cars in the works, including from its project i a battery electric designed for the world's "mega-cities" (with populations over 10 million). It won't be a luxury hybrid, and don't expect much of a sound system.

Photo: amenish.dewatermere