Wednesday, February 04, 2009

Future Now?

Toyota recently boasted, in a four page advertising supplement for the Venza, “Tell people you’ve seen the future and it’s got cup holders.” In general, I dislike these supplements as they are designed to deceive the reader — they’re in the same font and publication style of the “host” publication and only differentiated by opaque qualifications, such as “Advertising Supplement” — but I read on due to their bold proclamation. What I found, however, was not what I had expected: there was no mention hybrid-electric, bio-fuel, ethanol, or natural gas. In fact, the fuel economy was quite poor, 22 mpg (8.7 tons of CO2).

I wondered how such a car could be the future — sure it had plenty of performance, safety features, and cargo room, but shouldn’t such a pronouncement be reserved for vehicles like the Prius? I also puzzled at the disconnect between Toyota’s environmental image and this ad; after all weren’t they in the top five? No! Unfortunately, Toyota is ranked tenth well behind Mini, Honda, and Chevrolet (yes, Chevrolet) in first, second, and third for highest average fuel-efficiency. How could this be the case as they produce the Prius and Tacoma? The answer is they also produce a number of fuel-hogs in their lineup of 55 models and the Prius, the world’s best-selling hybrid, has only accounted for 1 million cars over 11 years. Even compact cars such as the Yaris and the Corolla, now numbering 15 million and recently surpassing Ford’s Model T for second most-sold automobile (the Beetle remains first by a long shot), cannot tip the balance. I never thought that Toyota would be behind a GM corporation in anything but sales.

The source data for these statistics on average fuel economy is actually quite difficult to come by, so it is better to stick with compilations by CNN, above, and blogs, such as Automotive Traveler and Ecogeek. The only disadvantage in doing so is the overestimation of Mini, which really only produces one car, although twelve models are listed. It is best to compare the Mini with Lotus and stand in awe of Chevrolet, which nearly equals Honda in efficiency and has over three times as many cars in its lineup; however, if one included Chevrolet with GM’s other brands these figures would plummet since GMC and Hummer are ranked as the tenth and ninth worst fuel-efficient manufacturers respectively.

For an enlightening production of the general phenomenon of widespread fuel consumption watch Who Killed the Electric Car?, a much more even-handed production than the title suggests. Nader sums it up best, that companies such as GM are "going backwards into the future." Another snippet of society’s prevailing distrust of alternate propulsion was Top Gear’s staging of a Tesla running out of charge while Jeremy Clarkson’s noted, “Although Tesla say it will do 200 miles we worked out that on our track it would run out after just 55 miles.” Although Clarkson can’t help being pompous, BBC could have avoided such a stunt. Nevertheless, everything worked out: Tesla was happy with Clarkson’s effusive praise on the car’s performance against a regular Elise and I was happy to witness Clarkson trying to transect Vietnam on a Vespa in a later show. (He was taken down a notch or two, though all in good fun, on this “barbaric” form of transportation.)

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