Well, I think most of us will have waved good bye to 2016 with no small sense of relief, and while 2017 holds many an unknown for all, surely it can’t be as bad as last year? Can it?
Well, we can at least offer one certainty for the coming year and that is if you’re planning on buying a car, new or used, make sure it’s a hybrid.
Why hybrid power?
The diesel controversy is rumbling on into 2017, and we’ll doubtless get to this coming September’s second anniversary of the uncovering of Volkswagen’s ‘Dieselgate’ misconduct before there’s any finality brought to the situation. Fiat and Chrylser have both also been brought under the scrutiny of the US environmental investigators (albeit at a less serious level than VW) and in Europe, Renault has confirmed that data relating to its diesel engines has been passed to public prosecutors.
Diesel as a power source is under attack from other angles too. The joint decision of the mayors of Paris, Mexico City, Athens and Madrid to ban diesel engines from the centers of those cities by 2025 was a major movement against DERV power, and this past week the city of Oslo has temporarily banned diesel cars from urban areas in an effort to bring down air pollution levels. Once seen as the economical and carbon-reducing saviour of the car world, diesel is now bad news.
It gets worse. According to the experts at the International Council for Clean Transportation (ICCT – the people who initially uncovered the Volkswagen scandal) planned changes to legislation won’t actually have as big an impact on air quality as they should have. The upcoming Real Word Driving Emissions test, or RDE, is apparently as open to abuse as the old laboratory tests.
“Unlike the name suggests, the RDE regulation does not fully cover the real-driving conditions of normal vehicles,” says Dr. Peter Mock, Managing Director of ICCT in Europe. “This is because a number of driving situations, such as driving at unusually cold or hot temperatures or driving at higher speeds, are still excluded in the current version of RDE testing. Also, vehicle manufacturers can decide which vehicle to test—typically a carefully prepared prototype version. They can carry out the testing themselves and thereby optimize the results.”
Weakness of diesel testing
Vehicles with defeat devices installed have an especially large impact on average NOX emission levels. “The RDE regulation is an important step in the right direction,” says Joshua Miller, ICCT researcher and one of the authors of the study, which analysed an extensive set of diesel car emissions data using modelling of the boundary conditions of the RDE regulation. “But the current version of RDE is not designed to detect defeat devices, and without further provisions to test in-service vehicles rather than prototypes and to expand the range of driving conditions covered by the test, resulting real-world emission levels will be higher than the adopted RDE emission limits suggest.”
Although the planned move by the European Commission is welcome, a realistic view is needed with respect to timing. “Even in our most optimistic scenario, with a substantial improvement in nitrogen-oxide (NOx) technology applications and enforcement practices, we expect the average real-world NOx emissions level of new diesel cars to drop to 96 mg/km only in 2022,” says Miller. “This highlights the need for further tightening vehicle emissions testing procedures. Otherwise, diesel car NOx emissions will remain above the regulatory limit for many years to come, and at levels much higher than those of gasoline cars.”
The hybrid alternative
The better news, for consumers at any rate, is that hybrids are becoming better and better, both to drive and to run, and their prices, while hardly coming down much, have stayed relatively static, allowing other cars to catch up with them. With diesel under fire, and even Dublin making early noises about the possibility of banning oil-burning cars, buying a half-electric car could be the best way to start weaning yourself off the black pump.
The new Toyota Prius, launched last year, is a perfect case in point. It’s a big and roomy family car, with space roughly equivalent to that of an Avensis, yet it has Co2 emissions of just 76g/km and while you won’t get close to the claimed economy figure of 85.6mpg, you can pretty easily crack the 60mpg barrier with one — which makes it every bit as economical in the real world as any comparable diesel car. Better still, Toyota have found a way to make the Prius as frugal on a long motorway run, which wasn’t always the case before. There are several other very impressive Toyota group hybrid offerings (the little Yaris Hybrid, pretty much the entire Lexus range, the C-HR crossover) but there are, at last, some decent competitors coming onto the market.
Emerging hybrid manufacturers
The Korean conjoined firms of Hyundai and Kia have entered the fray this year with the Ioniq (which can also be had as a completely electric car or a plugin hybrid with 50km electric range) and the Niro. The Ioniq is a neat and relatively simple family hatch, a direct Prius rival (that’s actually a little cheaper than a Prius) and which is blamelessly good to drive. Kia’s Niro is slightly more appealing thanks to its crossover estate styling and extra practicality, and both will manage an easy 60mpg in real-world conditions.
Fancy something cheaper? How about a Suzuki Baleno 1.2 ‘Mild Hybrid’? That won’t run on just the batteries like a Prius will, but a clever electrical system means that it takes strain away from the engine maximising economy, and you can pick one up for less than €20k.
Of course, it’s when the truly desirable cars start to hybrid-ise that more of us will sit up and take notice. BMW already has a very impressive 3 Series 330e plugin hybrid and this year the all-new 5 Series will gain some batteries and a plugin cable. Mercedes already has plugin versions of the C and E-Classes while Audi has its fast-expanding e-Tron range, and VW its GTE lineup, all of which make eminent good sense (even if they are a touch pricey).
What about residual values? The news is good here too. While 2016’s new car sales were still dominated, at a rate of 70 per cent, by diesel cars, hybrid sales were proportionally the fastest growing, climbing by 82.5 per cent, so there’s clear public demand for such hybrid cars. Equally, taxi firms are very keen on them, so any well-kept hybrid car of decent size will always find a ready buyer with a glowing light bar on the roof. Mind you, that should sound some warning bells for those contemplating buying a second hand hybrid in 2017. The last-gen Toyota Prius was always a popular choice for taxi operators, so if you’re considering buying one make sure you get a thorough history check to find out if it was previously used as a cab.
And happy part-electric motoring to you all.