Missing the Point

January 7th, 2010

The fuel-economy of our nation’s light-duty vehicle fleet has been roughly stagnant for the past three decades, following a significant (but unsustained) improvement just after the Corporate Average Fuel Economy (CAFE) rules were enacted in 1975.  And although our cars’ fuel-economy hasn’t really improved, their efficiency certainly has.  We’re certainly moving around a lot more mass, a lot faster, on the same amount of fuel (per car) we were using 30 years ago. The problem is, all this technology packed into our automobiles has been engineered almost entirely to give us more performance (a 1980 Honda Accord had less than 80 hp; today’s base-model is approaching 200) and move us around in a lot more luxury (with a resulting heft of 3200 lbs for today’s Accord, a gain of a half-ton over the 1980 version) than we ever thought possible, at the complete expense of fuel-economy.  (I know, it’s a result of market demand…  But the best marketers are experts at selling us what we don’t need.)

These days, hybrid technology seems to be the solution to significant increases in fuel-economy, as it becomes ever more difficult to squeeze further efficiency improvements from conventional powertrains.  But BMW has taken a different tack with their ActiveHybrid X6.  Touted as “the world’s most powerful hybrid,” BMW starts with a 4.4-liter, 400 hp V8 internal combustion engine – which, until recent years, would have been enough of a beast to power anything but vehicles of near-supercar status – and integrates it with not one, but TWO electric motors totaling an additional 174 hp.  And sure, the combined 574 horses will be enough to provide incredible acceleration in this nearly 3-ton mammoth, but … what’s the point?

2010 BMW X6 ActiveHybrid

2010 BMW X6 ActiveHybrid

The X6 ActiveHybrid starts at a base price of nearly $90k.  At that price-level, you could almost have a Tesla Roadster, or one of the other upcoming EVs or PHEVs with phenomenal performance and actual environmental benefits.  Granted, the X6 will carry a little more gear than a Roadster.  But, it’s ugly – no matter what powertrain is under the skin.  The X6 looks like the answer to a question that nobody asked.  And while I’m sure it, like all BMWs, offers a driving experience more exhilarating than the majority of other cars on the road, I can’t help but think of it as a caricature of a Honda CRX.

I hope automakers don’t repeat the trend of the past 3 decades, by following BMW’s example of continuing to utilize efficiency-improving technology to increase performance while sacrificing potential fuel-economy benefits. Fortunately, due to the recent and long-overdue increase in CAFE standards, this trend may be thwarted.  At least, as it was in the 1980s, temporarily.

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