Harsh reality is settling in. After winning 10 Best Engines awards in 2004 and 2005, no hybrid electric vehicle (HEV) powertrain made our list this year. Chalk it up to rising expectations and a declining gee-whiz factor.
In other words, our honeymoon with hybrids is over.
Environmentalists say HEVs are the magic bullet that will save the auto industry as well as the atmosphere. Auto makers are charging hefty premiums for the technology. In that light, the HEVs we tested this year are as good as ever, but not living up to their own hype.
We have been duly impressed in the past, naming Toyota Motor Corp. HEVs to the 10-Best Engines list twice and Honda Motor Co. Ltd.'s system once.
In 2001, we were thrilled with the way Toyota brought HEV technology to the practical Prius sedan in a relatively transparent fashion. In 2004 we were awed by how much Toyota improved the system.
Last year, judges were wowed by the way Honda's sophisticated Integrated Motor Assist (IMA) hybrid system dispelled the myth that HEVs have to be slow and boring.
For Judge Winter, the honeymoon for hybrids is over.
This year we could not ignore a few shortcomings.
First among our complaints, pointed out by a growing number of journalists and disgruntled owners, is real-world fuel economy far less than what is advertised.
Second, fuel economy is affected too much by driving style and ambient temperature.
The Lexus 400h is the epitome of luxury and environmental friendliness when we moved silently through stop-and-go traffic on full electric power. But once the vehicle's internal combustion engine gets involved with propulsion, we were less impressed. During hard acceleration it doesn't have the premium sound we expect from a vehicle with a base price approaching $50,000. Plus, we were underwhelmed with our 25 mpg (9L/100 km) average.
NASA astronaut Ken Mattingly spent tedious hours in a flight simulator figuring out a start-up sequence that used only 20 amps for an energy-starved Apollo 13. That made for compelling drama in a movie.
Employing the same power-saving tactics just to squeeze out something close to the EPA mileage from a Civic Hybrid on a cold day is a bit less engaging.
Want something close to its alleged 49/51 mpg (5L/100 km/4.6L/100 km) on a frosty morning? Forget about warming up the engine or using the defroster. Scrape the windows by hand, stay off the throttle and the expressway and get ready to shiver.
Enduring that kind of inconvenience is fine if you need to get back from space with your fuel cells spent, but not when you're just heading to work.