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Is the hybrid arms race the right solution?

Published: 01 February 2012

Confusing, isn’t it? No, not trying to find your test car amongst a sea of identical silvery-blue BMWs, but trying to figure out the worth of hybrids.

As the picture above will impart, this week I have driven the new BMW ActiveHybrid 5. And I was very impressed – it’s probably the best hybrid on sale today. But it’s essentially it’s an electrified 535i, and thanks to the addition of an electric motor and a clump of lithium-ion batteries (which add 150kg to the kerbweight) it’s apparently more fuel efficient and emits fewer grammes of CO2 for every kilometre driven. Can that be right?

It’s all down to the ActiveHybrid 5’s ability to drive a couple of miles on electric power, which means in Europe’s NEDC fuel consumption test it records 44.1mpg and 149g/km CO2, rather than the 535i’s 37.2mpg and 177g/km. It’s not a simple case at pointing the figure at the NEDC test either; it’s a standard by which cars sold in Europe are measured, and some clever people just happened to have figured a way to score top marks.

But it's like the VHS and Betamax war. In Europe it’s CO2 we care about (reality: are taxed upon), and diesel engines produce less CO2 than petrol engines. It’s why BMW’s 4000-strong Olympic fleet (which will average less than 120g/km CO2) will be predominantly made up of 320d and 520d EfficientDynamic models.

But the Americans and Japanese would be horrified at the huge number of diesel BMWs transporting athletes through our already-congested capital city. These two countries focus on NOx emissions, which diesels produce much more of compared to petrol models. Hence the reason why the USA and Japan alone will take two-thirds of BMW’s ActiveHybrid 5 production – it’s a cleaner version of an already clean petrol engine.

I did ask BMW whether a 535d, 535i or ActiveHybrid 5 is kinder to the environment (by which I mean CO2, NOx, the whole damn lot) over its entire lifecycle – i.e. from the mining of materials, production, emissions during ownership, and recycling – but no one had an answer for me. I dare say one won’t be forthcoming either, as it could kill sales of the other two.

Depending on whom you ask, any of the three could probably be proved to be The Answer. Back in 2006 CAR reported the research of an American marketing company, which claimed the dust-to-dust environmental impact of a Toyota Prius was worse than a Range Rover Sport. The simpleton Jeep Wrangler was, apparently, the cleanest car on sale. ‘Lies, damn lies and statistics’ as a great man once said, or to quote Homer Simpson: ‘People can come up with statistics to prove anything, 14% of people know that.’

The answer? Haven’t got one for you, but with Peugeot and Citroen introducing diesel hybrids, and nearly every other manufacturer having or readying a petrol hybrid for sale, they're going to become more and more common in the marketplace. But why? Engineers shrug shoulders when asked why they're building hybrids, pointing to customer demand and the need to meet emissions targets. But don't governments realise the targets they set to lower vehicle emissions are damaging the environment elsewhere?

All I (think I) know is that hydrogen is (probably) the future, but it’s going to be a long (long) time coming. But there are decades of life yet in petrol and diesel engine yet, especially without electrication. And if we ever stop being driven by monetary cost, we might actually find out what the environmental cost is.

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By Ben Pulman

CAR's editor-at-large, co-ordinator, tallboy