In early 2010 Nissan unveiled the Leaf, its groundbreaking electric car. Until that point, Nissan was conspicuously absent from the hybrid game, offering only a hybrid Altima that used a Toyota-designed system. With the debut of the Leaf, Nissan CEO Carlos Ghosn explained his apathy toward hybrids: “If you have an efficient battery for a hybrid, why not go all the way and go for electric cars?” he said. Ghosn also memorably compared hybrids to mermaids. And not in a good way.
Now, three years later, hybrids face competition on two fronts — both from electric cars and from conventional gasoline and diesel models. On one side, conventional technology has reached the point that there are plenty of non-hybrids that earn 40 mpg or more on the highway. A Chevy Malibu eAssist (a mild hybrid) earns 29 mpg combined, while a conventional Nissan Altima is rated at 31 mpg. Full hybrids, like those from Ford and Toyota, fare better but are no longer the towering mileage champions that they were in the early days of the Prius.
And on the other side, there’s Tesla. Just three years after the Leaf, we have an electric car that can seat seven, accelerate like an M5 and go about 300 miles on a charge. Technology is changing fast. So this seems like a good time to ponder the traditional hybrid’s place in the world. To do that, I procured possibly the finest all-around hybrid you can buy, the 2013 Lexus GS450h.
The GS pairs a direct-injected Atkinson-cycle 3.5-liter V-6 with a pair of electric motors to produce 338 total hp. In the GS lineup, it is both the fastest (0-60 in 5.6 seconds) and most efficient (31 mpg combined). Using the EV mode, it can creep along at low speeds using just the electric motors. It is quick, quiet and thrifty.
But the hybrid benefits aren’t free. At $60,345, the hybrid GS costs about $12,000 more than a base rear-wheel-drive GS350. Weighing 4,190 lbs., the GS450h carries 395 extra pounds, and its subfloor hybrid accoutrements eat up 1.1 cubic feet of trunk space.
To contemplate the hybrid’s existential dilemma — whether hybrids are here to stay or just a transient technology, a bridge to the electric future — I visited a pickling factory and took a drive through southern Florida to deliver a load of pigs’ feet. And then I stopped by a Tesla store to indulge in some Ferris-Bueller-in-the-museum reverie. Are hybrids in a pickle? I think so.