Eco-friendly vehicles seem to be at last living up to their promise for economy, affordability and fun

Hybrid cars are on a slow burn in New Zealand, in more ways than one. They use clever technology to minimise fuel use, but they have also had minimal impact on new-car sales. Less than 5 per cent of registrations are hybrid vehicles.

How come? Given that hybrid technology seems to enjoy a reputation as the answer to the automotive world's emissions woes, our roads should be absolutely crawling with them. That's not the case, for a number of reasons.

For a start, it's clever technology, but it's been a while getting there in terms of fuel economy.

Hybrids make a considerable contribution towards cleaning up local emissions, especially if you're driving in the city, but in our experience real-world fuel economy often does not live up to the laboratory figures. Hybrids sometimes struggle to match comparable, conventional diesel-fuel cars.


Hybrids have not always been good to drive: with powertrains optimised for economy, the regenerative braking hardware that goes with the battery technology and low-friction tyres, many hybrid cars feel a bit, well, appliance-like.

Then there's cost. Hybrid technology is expensive to develop and expensive to produce.

Given all of the above, paying a large premium for a hybrid isn't something that sits easily with everybody. You have to be pretty committed to the hybrid cause, or pretty keen on the image a hybrid presents to the outside world.

However, there are signs that the awkward adolescent phase of hybrid technology is coming to an end. On the market right now are hybrids that are setting new standards in economy, hybrids that are fun to drive - even hybrids that are affordable. Eventually, hybrid technology will become familiar enough that we'll stop talking about it. Some makers would like to think we're there already.

Sprightly Prius C aims to win over the doubters

Toyota's new Prius is arguably all three. Slightly bigger than a Yaris supermini, but smaller than the familiar hybrid still (confusingly) known simply as Prius, the C is being pitched as the car for those who might not have considered a hybrid in the past.

Prius C uses proven Toyota hybrid technology, but because it's small and light, it does an impressive job of maximising battery use, feels sprightly when you want it to be and comes packed with trip-computer features that show you how well you're doing with economy.

It combines a thrifty petrol engine with an electric motor/battery pack. It can run on just the petrol engine, just electric power (albeit for an extremely short distance - around 2km) or both together. The battery is recharged by energy normally lost in braking/deceleration, or sometimes by the petrol engine. Because all of the power goes through the same transmission, the Prius C is a "parallel hybrid" - as are Toyota's standard Prius and new Prius V people mover, right up to the Camry.


Lexus promises to keep emphasis on performance

Luxury hybrids are not necessarily all about economy - nor do they claim to be. Lexus has always been clear about its top-line petrol-electric models being "performance hybrids", meaning they offer equivalent get-up-and-go to models with much larger engines, but use less fuel to achieve it.

The GS450h is designed to be an ultra-refined executive express. Soon to be launched in an all-new model, it combines a V6 petrol powerplant with an electric motor, to give V8 levels of performance with small-car fuel economy. Similarly, the super-luxury Lexus 600hL boasts a V8 powerplant but is claimed to give the performance of a V12 limousine.

The RX450h crossover is arguably one of the most technologically interesting hybrids on sale. It's a "series hybrid", because the V6 petrol engine and battery pack are not linked: one drives the front wheels, the other the rear. This means that the electric motor is used not only for extra traction, but can also act independently as a stability control system, and so on. Very clever.

BMW 5 Series adds speed and glamour

The ranks of glamorous performance hybrids will grow further around October, when BMW New Zealand adds the 5 Series ActiveHybrid to its ranks. Again, it's not a super-economy model: we understand it will be priced very closely to the 535d and boasts strong performance from a combination of a 3-litre TwinPower turbo six and lithium-ion battery pack, both driving the rear wheels. It can hit 100km/h in 5.9 seconds.

Holden Volt's petrol power defies convention

Many regard hybrid power as a stepping stone to other future technologies - plug-in hybrids, full-electric cars and ultimately those powered by hydrogen. As such, carmakers continue to develop the hybrid concept.

Is Holden's Volt, due for launch at the end of the year, a hybrid? Holden says no, many experts say yes. Volt is an electric car that can be plugged in for zero-emissions and has a range of up to 80km - plenty for the daily commute. However, it also has a petrol engine that acts as a generator, extending the range to that of a conventional car if needed.

Therefore, Holden says Volt is an extended-range electric vehicle. But because the powertrain can use the petrol engine to deliver drive to the wheels in very specific (and rare) circumstances, many argue it's really a hybrid.

Cayenne crossover can still perform

Even pure performance marques have embraced performance-hybrid technology. Porsche offers a petrol-electric version of its Cayenne S crossover, although it's not an alternative to the diesel model as you might expect. On price and performance, it's actually a rival for the V8-powered Cayenne S.

Honda's next-generation Civic and CR-Z don't compromise on driving experience
Toyota is one company that pioneered hybrid technology. Honda is the other - in fact, it was the first to offer a series-production hybrid for sale. Until the launch of the Prius C, Honda also had New Zealand's cheapest hybrid on its books: the Insight hatchback (above left), which it claims is 40 per cent less expensive to run than a typical small car, based on the average economy figures of its rivals.

Honda's hybrid system focuses more on using battery power to supplement the petrol engine when required, instead of swapping between the two motors as with Toyota's.

The larger Civic hybrid, just launched as part of the new ninth-generation Civic range, works on the same principles as Insight but showcases next-generation battery technology. While most current hybrids use nickel metal hydride technology, the Civic is now fitted with smaller, lighter and more powerful lithium ion batteries - the same as those used in your cellphone or laptop. In fact, it's the first mainstream hybrid on sale in New Zealand to have this technology (the Prius V is similarly powered).

The eco-friendly image of hybrid technology explains why so many premium carmakers have embraced it: customers get to enjoy maximum vehicle size and comfort with minimal guilt.

Honda, for example, made a great effort to market its Insight as just another family hatchback - albeit one with outstanding fuel economy. It's doing the same with the excellent little CR-Z, which it argues is a sports car that just happens to be a hybrid. It even refers to the battery pack as providing a turbo-like "boost".

That might be stretching things, but the CR-Z (top) is a prime exampe of how far hybrids have come: there's no real compromise in the driving experience or the purchase price.

Just good fun and a pleasant surprise at the pump.

What they cost - and what they do
Toyota Prius C
$30,990-$34,990, 3.9l/100km

Honda Insight
$35,600-$40,000, 4.6l/100km

Honda Civic IMA
$43,500, 4.4l/100km

Honda CR-Z
$44,900, 4.7-5.0l/100km

Toyota Prius
$49,990, 3.9l/100km

Toyota Camry hybrid
$50,990-$56,890, 5.2l/100km

Lexus CT200h
$54,600-$72,000, 4.1l/100km

Lexus RX450h
$118,600-$138,100, 6.4l/100km

Lexus GS450h
$TBA, 6.3l/100km

Porsche Cayenne S hybrid
$197,500, 8.2l/100km

Lexus LS600h
$280,300, 9.3l/100km