Which Is Greener: Hybrids or Compacts?

Robert Siegel talks about new, smaller cars with Jamie Kitman, New York bureau chief for Automobile magazine. Kitman wrote an op-ed in The New York Times about how small cars with better gas-mileage are in many ways better for the environment than some hybrids.

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ROBERT SIEGEL, host:

With the price of oil so high and gasoline at the pump so expensive, many of us are looking for a more fuel-efficient car, and here with some often surprising guidance is Jamie Kitman, the New York bureau chief for Automobile magazine.

And Jamie, first off, the big success story of the past year was the Toyota Prius, the hybrid car. You've written that the hybrids are really not so efficient as we might think.

Mr. JAMIE KITMAN (New York Bureau Chief, Automobile Magazine): Well, that's not exactly fair to say. I said that just because something is a hybrid, doesn't mean that it's particularly economical. What I was mostly writing about are a new wave of hybrids that are coming that purport to address the gasoline questions and those are larger SUVs that are being built. There's a new Chevy Tahoe, Lexus makes a hybrid SUV, and while they do improve their efficiency, you still have to look at what the real mileage that they get is. The Chevy, for instance, you know, is really, you know, in real world use is likely to get in the low 20s. While that's an improvement over the mid-teens that it might be getting previously, it's still not a particularly economical car.

SIEGEL: But one fact of life about a hybrid is that it gets its real efficiency in city driving when it's using its electric motor, not on the highway when it's using its gas motor.

Mr. KITMAN: Well a hybrid can, most hybrids, in fact all hybrids that are on the market now get their best mileage working in stop and go traffic in the city and the suburban shuffle. When you're out on the open interstate going 70 or 80 miles an hour as people are wont to do, covering great distances, that mileage benefit tends to evaporate.

SIEGEL: Well, let's leave the hybrid cars aside now because just over the horizon it seems is coming a new generation of small cars, very energy efficient and most of them from Japan. Which cars are we talking about here?

Mr. KITMAN: Soon to hit American shores or already just arriving, the new Honda Fit which is a car that's smaller than a Civic, the Toyota Yeris, which has been a bestseller around the world in previous years but wasn't sold here, the Dodge Caliber which really is kind of a crossover mini-SUV that replaces, it's a direct replacement for the Dodge Neon and the Nissan Versa. We also have the Kia Rio V, the Hyundai Accent, the Chevrolet Avia, which is a which is a rebadged Daewoo from Korea, a new Volkswagen Golf and soon to be a sub-Golf Volkswagen.

SIEGEL: Roughly what kind of mileage do they get per gallon?

Mr. KITMAN: Well they tend towards the high 30's.

SIEGEL: City driving or highway driving or?

Mr. KITMAN: You know, mostly on the highway, I would say, but even in city driving you can expect, I would say, at the lowest in the high 20s.

SIEGEL: And we should expect to see these cars coming over in large numbers looking for a big share of the American market?

Mr. KITMAN: I would say that, you know, it's funny, people talk about them, they were really an afterthought, but I think collectively they'll sell many hundreds of thousands of these. I know Honda's target for the Fit is to sell 50,000.

SIEGEL: Is what's happening here car makers that have been successfully making and selling small cars for Asia have suddenly, because of rising gasoline prices, found the U.S. market to be a target of opportunity because now we might be willing to buy those cars, which they didn't think would sell here before?

Mr. KITMAN: Well I think that's certainly true. I think part of that was a fundamental misunderstanding on the part of both Asians, but I notice it particularly among Europeans and this sort of tendency to view America monolithically, that everybody here wants a big car. The Mini Cooper which was relatively pricy, you know, $25,000 some of them cost, but the smallest car on sale in America, kind of broke that cycle and it made people realize, well maybe it's, you know, the American people are more diverse and complicated than we can imagine.

Automotive fashion moves in trends like all other fashion and they've certainly spent a lot of time looking at the fashion industry and the style, it had to change. There was always gonna be a pendulum swing back to smaller cars.

SIEGEL: Jamie thanks for talking with us.

Mr. KITMAN: Thanks, Robert.

SIEGEL: Jamie Kitman, who is the New York bureau chief for Automobile magazine.

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