Greenformance: Hybrid Small Cars—The “Premium” Question

By Chris Martens

November 15, 2012

On the occasion of driving Acura’s new ILX Hybrid Tech, several members of the Winding Road team found themselves asking what exactly hybridized premium-brand small cars have to offer, at least in theory. But at the same time, we couldn’t help but ask two follow-up questions. First, do hybridized premium small cars deliver in reality what they promise on paper? Second, are there potentially cheaper and/or better ways to get the things we think we want from compact premium hybrids?
Let’s begin by comparing what compact premium hybrids promise versus what they actually deliver. As near as we can tell, premium small hybrids attract customers in many of the same ways that their non-hybrid counterparts do. Plainly, the perceived panache of premium nameplates exerts an undeniable pull. Where a Honda, Toyota, or Nissan might seem good but mundane, an Acura, Lexus, or Infiniti promises something better. Specifically, we think premium nameplate buyers are seeking higher levels of self-evident build quality, more expansive standard amenities, and better noise, vibration, and harshness isolation than in standard models. They may also be seeking higher levels of performance as measured in terms of acceleration, handling, steering feel, and overall driver involvement.
In general, we think non-hybrid compact premium cars do a pretty good job of giving their intended buyers what they want and expect. Perceived build quality is, as expected, higher than in standard model counterparts, and materials—especially interior materials, tend to be noticeably more upscale in their appeal. Overall driving refinement is typically improved, meaning NVH issues are typically better tamed in premium models. Finally, even the “smallness” of compact premium cars makes perfect sense once you grasp the fact that some buyers perceive smaller vehicles as being more desirable simply because they are right-sized for the buyer’s intended application. Note, for example, that many urban dwellers consider small cars preferable to mid-size or full-size vehicles, if only because they work better in densely packed downtown environments where parking space (not to mention maneuvering room), can be at a premium.
But still, we eventually confront the question of whether hybrid compact premium cars make sense.  In theory, compact premium hybrids should give buyer’s lower fuel costs thanks to superior mileage, while still providing a luxurious driving experience (creating kind of a “have your cake and eat it too” scenario where owners can be frugal and environmentally conscious, yet at the same time pursue an upscale lifestyle). On paper this sounds like a pretty great idea, but how does it work out in practice?
Judging by both the Acura ILX Hybrid and the Lexus CT200h, we would say that hybrid premium compact cars have thus yielded “neither-fish-nor-fowl” results, where vehicle performance takes a substantial hit (not exactly what you would want from any premium vehicle), yet where mileage is also not as impressive as hoped. To see what we mean, here, consider this: the ILX Tech Hybrid has a combined EPA rating of 38 mpg, while Honda Civic Hybrid has a combined EPA rating of 44 mpg—a fairly big (15.7-percent) difference, considering the underlying similarities between the two cars. In other words, you lose a significant chunk of the hoped-for benefits of a hybrid system when you attempt to make the transition from standard hybrid to compact premium hybrid. But an even more worrying concern that the changes applied in order to create compact premium hybrids may leave us with cars that are not only mediocre hybrids (in term of fuel mileage), but are also poorer premium cars (because hybrid drivetrains tend to make the cars slower, noisier, and much less pleasant to drive). 
Together, these observations lead us to ask, are there better ways to manage the hoped-for luxury + performance + green-grade mileage compromises? We think there are, though the answers may in fact come from non-premium brands. To see what we mean, let’s consider some practical alternatives.
One way to tackle the greenformance dilemma is temporarily set hybrids aside to take a long, hard look at “clean diesels.” Common wisdom holds that hybrids offer better mileage than diesels, but this isn’t necessarily true—especially in scenarios where what you want is a balanced combination of fuel mileage and performance. Consider this: VW’s turbodiesel drivetrain, which is available across many different VW models, offer markedly more power and torque than, say, the hybrid drivetrains found in the Acura ILX Tech Hybrid or Lexus CT200h, yet with virtually no mileage penalty at all. Then note that, because VW offers TDI power plants in so many different cars, you can essentially decide what mix of frugality and luxury is right for you. On a tight budget? Look at the base Jetta TDI, which starts under $23K. Want more luxury and amenities? Step right up to the posh Passat TDI, which starts at around $26.2K, and then check option boxes until you get a ride with all the upscale features your heart desires. By stepping “down” from premium brands, you’ll find it possible to enjoy greater performance and mileage for less than you’d spend on a typical compact premium hybrid. Food for thought, no?
Attractive options from Pacific rim-based carmakers also abound. For instance, one might consider either the Kia Optima Hybrid or Hyundai Sonata Hybrid, both of which start at around $25,700, offer greater interior volume than the Acura ILX Tech Hybrid or Lexus CT200h, provide roughly equivalent fuel mileage, but deliver far more satisfying power and torque (201 horsepower for the Kia/Hyundai vs. 115 horsepower for the Acura or 134 horsepower for the Lexus).  In short, the Kia/Hyundai team can offer you larger cars that offer great mileage and are demonstrably more fun to drive than their compact premium hybrid counterparts. Granted, neither Kia nor Hyundai offer the perceived panache of Acura or Lexus, but if you can overlook the lack of a premium nameplate and simply focus on the car, you may find that appropriately optioned Kia or Hyundai hybrids can give you all the luxury touches you might need or want, while still allowing you to save a bundle. But remember, the key is that Kia/Hyundai had the foresight to develop a hybrid drivetrain that is at once efficient, yet reasonably fun (not annoyingly painful) to use.
None of this should be taken as a slam against compact premium hybrids. Rather it’s a reiteration of a time-tested word of caution: caveat emptor (let the buyer beware).  There is absolutely nothing wrong with the combination of virtues promised by today’s compact premium hybrids; the problem, in our view, is that execution has often fallen well short of buyers’ hopes and manufacturers’ marketing claims. Ironically, at this moment in the evolution of the market for greenformance cars, non-premium nameplate offerings may actually do a better job of delivering the qualities and performance characteristics we seek from compact premium hybrids.