When Hybrids Turn NASCAR

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Hybrid gas-electric cars conjure up images of a sober citizen happily, if cautiously, easing a fuel-sipping but underpowered compact car down a slow traffic lane.

That image is exaggerated, of course. But when the first generation of hybrids hit the streets at the turn of this century, the idea was to get great mileage and create less pollution. The two-seat Honda Insight, for example, is rated by the EPA at a miserly 61 to 66 miles per gallon. The much larger Toyota Prius, the most popular hybrid, still rates above 50 m.p.g.

But some new hybrids, which like the two above employ both a gasoline engine and an electric motor, are taking their inspiration more from NASCAR than the Sierra Club. Their electric motors are like turbochargers, adding tire-squealing power with little fuel savings.

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Take the 2005 Honda Accord. It keeps the same V-6 engine as the conventional model and then tacks on an electric motor, which boosts horsepower from an already muscular 240 to 255, making it faster in 0-60 m.p.h. acceleration.

According to Consumer Reports magazine, fuel efficiency for that hybrid is only two miles per gallon higher than the conventional V-6 in real-life driving - a less than stunning 23 m.p.g. to 25 m.p.g for the V-6. Similarly, the new Lexus RX400h hybrid SUV has 38 more horsepower than the otherwise identical RX330.

This year hybrid buyers can take a $2,000 federal tax deduction based on the idea that hybrids are more fuel-efficient and produce fewer emissions. But lower pollution is achieved mostly through smaller engine size. Leaving an identical V-6 in the vehicle brings only a small improvement when the electric assistance kicks in.

The point? Hybrids can be used either to save fuel or to boost power. A tax credit that blindly gives a break to all hybrids doesn't necessarily reward fuel saving.

Congress is expected to pass an energy bill by Friday that apparently will address this flaw. It will base its tax credit on how much better gas mileage the hybrid achieves compared with a comparable non-hybrid model.

If designed for fuel conservation, hybrid vehicles can play a role in helping to break America's gasoline addiction. As an Environmental Protection Agency report leaked to The New York Times Thursday shows, US cars and trucks are getting bigger, heavier, faster - and less fuel efficient.

Car buyers who want to buy "green" should be sure that the hybrid they're considering really saves fuel. And federal policy should reward hybrids that cut demand for foreign oil - not subsidize faster muscle cars.

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