The plan with today’s piece is to stoke debate. Plenty of debate. This is because it puts something called money on the line, which makes this debate worth something, unlike all those manual vs. automatic transmission pieces I constantly come across. Honestly, having an article with a title like that is a no-brainer for that goal and having plenty of comments to respond to, which on Clunkerture, is like three on a good day.
A few months ago, I, like thousands of others, read Doug DeMuro’s piece on why he thought hybrids were a better buy than diesels. It’s extremely rare that I take on an individual article, but I’ve been planning a “diesels are better” piece for a while, ever since I had an MKZ Hybrid for a few days. DeMuro just managed to accelerate me writing the piece from two months down to two weeks. Yes, I’m that slow. Like most hybrid drivers.
Now, my friends and family will tell you I tend to be a bit “high-strung” (my words, not theirs) when it comes to fuel economy. They’ll tell you how I rarely switch on the air-conditioning, how I sometimes travel at 55 mph to get optimum fuel economy when I’m not in a hurry, and how during the Ford Ecoboost Challenge, I specifically chose the “smaller” instructor so I’d win the hypermiling contest. I won a $300 pair of Sony headphones from that, so I regret nothing. Additionally, as a result of my win, I consider myself an expert on fuel economy.
Let’s start with the one major concession I have to make, lest I end up on the hit lists of the many environment organizations where I live (Berkeley), all of which will promptly turn up at my doorstep to sign their numerous petitions or answer endless survey questions (Question #136: How would you feel if a Land Rover hit a giraffe?).
It is fact that hybrids get better mileage on congested streets and roadways, places where the speed limit is below 65 mph, and most importantly, on the EPA test cycle. I’ve experienced this. In one case, on the way to my dentist’s office in the MKZ, I got over 60 mpg over 6 miles. I might’ve even cheered when I saw that number in the gauge cluster. Meanwhile, in places like San Francisco during rush hour, the car will be in silent electric mode, saving precious fuel, while you’re singing along to Mumford & Sons for the next two hours.
As for EPA test cycles, when testing highway fuel economy, the average speed over the 10.26 miles the car is being driven is 48.3 mph, with the highest speed achieved being 60 mph for short bursts. Also, manufacturers, not EPA employees, test MPG in their own facilities and then report them to the EPA. The EPA may test some vehicles randomly to see if the manufacturer-reported MPG figures are correct. Sometimes the manufacturer-reported MPG numbers sometimes aren’t correct, as it turned out with hybrid Fords, so the published numbers come even closer to the diesel numbers. (If you want to know more about how the EPA tests fuel economy, Car and Driver has an excellent piece on the subject.)
Despite these benefits, which are mainly the result of miserable situations (like listening to Mumford & Sons for two hours straight, going to the dentist, and working for the EPA), hybrids aren’t for everyone.
Take me for instance. Unlike most Americans, my daily grind doesn’t involve traffic, which happens to be one of the benefits of being a writer. My daily routine consists of waking up, spending five minutes descending twenty steps to a den, and deciding what I should read and write on my laptop for the next 10 hours. Somewhere in there is a shower most days and an hour or two playing GT Academy to realize my Kimi Raikkonen dreams. When I do go driving, I make sure to go out during times of light traffic, where I can travel at higher speeds, and not have to listen to more Mumford & Sons than I have to.
When I drove the MKZ from San Jose to Napa Valley at 75 to 80 mph (known as the speeds at which you can be second-fastest on California highways, meaning you won’t get a ticket), my MPG for the entire trip ended up being 37 MPG, which coincidentally fits the revised figures that Ford put out last week. This wasn’t much better than a Jetta TDI, which definitely would’ve achieved 38-40 MPG at the same speeds.
Despite all I’ve said above about hybrids excelling in certain scenarios compared to their diesel counterparts, there are exceptions. Let’s focus on BMW, which makes both a hybrid and diesel version of the 5-Series. Now, the hybrid 5-Series is apparently a tenth of a second faster to 60 mph. But the 535d annihilates the hybrid in fuel economy. Side-by-side, the 535d gets considerably better MPG and is about $5,000 cheaper. The diesel’s city fuel economy is higher than the hybrids. And the 535d’s MPG on the highway will outdo the ActiveHybrid 5 anytime at any speed and so will the range due to the larger fuel tank.
Other than the better MPG at higher speeds argument, I also have some other, minor-league complaints about hybrids vs. diesels. One issue I have is the amount of space taken away by the addition of the electric drivetrain. In the MKZ Hybrid, the electric drivetrain eliminated space in the trunk equivalent to one person. As a result, if you’re a gangster in a future Martin Scorsese movie, there’ll be a scene where you complain about how a Town Car would’ve fit that one extra body, along with a wisecrack about Hertz renting you the MKZ Hybrid as a “full-size luxury” car.
It also takes away from the gas tank. For instance, despite the Fusion Hybrid’s published EPA mileage being better, the Passat TDI has a considerably higher range, due to a much larger fuel capacity. So that same Martin Scorsese movie will have another quip about the inability to get as far away from the crime scene as possible. Furthermore, when accelerating on a highway, the torque is immediately available, unlike a hybrid, where the driver has to wait a moment before the electric motor kicks in with its extra torque, meaning our gangsters can’t quite outrun the police Chargers.
And not everyone can fix a hybrid. For instance, if something goes wrong while driving through the middle of Wyoming while attempting to move some product across the country, chances are (if the bison haven’t gotten to you first, but then again you’re a gangster, so the Berettas you were supposed to deliver did the trick) the local mechanics probably know how to fix a diesel over a hybrid, mitigating the chance of a roadside shootout with federal marshals.
In the end, the choice is whether a diesel or hybrid is better is up to you, the buyer. If you’re a gun-running mobster, buying diesel is probably your best bet. If you like listening to Mumford & Sons for hours on end, you can’t go wrong with an electric motor in your car.
Meanwhile, I’ll choose any car, diesel or hybrid or gasoline or CNG or hydrogen or electric, since I now have to escape the environmental activists knocking on my front door.