Hybrids and the 'Halo Effect' of Car Ads

Automakers advertising hybrid fuel economy, creating an "environmentally friendly" buzz. But the ads are at odds with life on the roads. Jon Linkov, managing editor for autos at Consumer Reports magazine, tells John Ydstie why.

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(Soundbite of Ford Escape commercial)

Kermit the Frog: (Singing) It's not that easy being green...

JOHN YDSTIE, host:

Partly because of high gas prices, consumers are taking a second look at hybrid cars.

Sales of Ford's Escape hybrid SUV were up more than 50 percent last month.

(Soundbite of Ford Escape commercial)

Kermit the Frog: Hmm. I guess it is easy being green.

Unidentified Man(speaking in commercial for Ford Escape): The 36-mile per gallon Ford Escape.

YDSTIE: Car companies are aggressively marketing the fuel economy of their hybrids, according to Jon Linkov, managing editor for autos at Consumer Reports Magazine.

But, he says, for the automakers, hybrids seem to be more about style than substance.

Mr. JONATHAN LINKOV (managing editor for autos, Consumer Reports): General Motors, for example, is really pushing their hybrid Tahoe that's going to come out, with a 25 percent increase in miles per gallon. Well that's a vehicle that, in our testing, got about 14 miles per gallon. A 25 percent increase isn't really significant. It's still a poorly performing vehicle overall.

But you're going to see advertising from Ford with the Kermit the Frog ads, you're going to see GM with E-85 ethanol and the hybrids pushed out there, because they want people to ignore the fact that we have vehicles that aren't great miles per gallon.

Here's some ones that do very well fuel economy-wise. Even Toyota does that. They have plenty of large SUVs that don't get great mileage, but they've used the Prius, their Highlander and their Lexus RX-400H hybrids to kind of show a halo effect and tell people to ignore the big trucks, you know, they don't have as many of those, according to advertising.

YDSTIE: As I understand the current federal tax breaks for hybrids are soon to expire. Are we likely to get more generous ones? And will it be money well spent if the government's goal is fuel efficiency and less pollution?

Mr. LINKOV: What's interesting is you see a lot of breaks and benefits given to hybrids. They can go into HOV lanes with single drivers in some areas. They get the fuel economy credits for taxes. It's about $2,000 or so, depending on the vehicle.

But you can do very well, going out and purchasing a very small vehicle like the Civic or a Ford Focus, or something like that that gets excellent mileage--over 30 miles per gallon in some cases. Those vehicles don't get the some type of respect, for lack of a better word, as they hybrids. And they're doing their part. They can fit four people, five people sometimes. They can haul a lot of goods. They should be allowed into HOV lanes or get some benefits. But everyone's really buzzing around the hybrid term just because of marketing.

YDSTIE: Of course there's some irony about letting the hybrids into the HOV lanes, isn't there?

Mr. LINKOV: That's exactly true. If you let hybrids travel in the HOV lanes, they're not running on the battery power. Because in theory, the HOV lanes are flowing more freely than the stop and go traffic. Take the conventionally powered vehicles, such as the Civic, the Ford Focus, and the other small vehicles, put them in the HOV lanes because they're never going to run on any kind of an assist, and they'll be running efficiently at 55 miles an hour in free flowing traffic.

YDSTIE: So what's next? Are we going to see a lot more hybrids? And will they be for performance or for fuel economy?

Mr. LINKOV: You're probably going to see a bit of both. The European manufacturers are talking about diesel hybrids, because diesel fuel is such a big player in the European market, and we're going to be receiving the clean diesel, starting in 2007.

So a diesel hybrid, in theory, will give you the best of both worlds. Great mileage on the highway, which is where a diesel excels, and then when you get in the city cycle it'll run on the hybrid battery, which should give you excellent city mileage.

YDSTIE: How about fuel cell autos?

Mr. LINKOV: We're not going to see fuel cells for a number of years. A Honda spokesman that we spoke to said, they don't expect to produce a mass-market fuel cell vehicle for at least 20 years. Hybrids, fuel cell vehicles, they're all still a small drop in the bucket compared to the overall driving that we do in the United States, which is with petroleum products. It's the efficient vehicles that are really going to do the most for us, not some kind of magic at the end of the day.

YDSTIE: Jon Linkov is Consumer Reports managing editor for autos.

Thanks very much.

Mr. LINKOV: Thank you.

YDSTIE: You're listening to MORNING EDITION from NPR News. I'm John Ydstie.

RENEE MONTAGNE, host:

And I'm Renee Montagne.

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