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Will Hyundai Hammer Honda In Fight For Greenest Carmaker Title?

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Hyundai Blue-Will plug-in hybrid concept, Seoul Motor Show, April 2009

Hyundai Blue-Will plug-in hybrid concept, Seoul Motor Show, April 2009

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For many years, Honda was routinely awarded the title of greenest carmaker in the U.S. market. But its most recent green cars have stumbled, and a dark-horse competitor is rising fast toward taking the coveted title, conferred every few years by the Union of Concerned Scientists.

It's not Nissan, which launched the 2011 Leaf battery electric car that won our GreenCarReports 2011 Best Car To Buy award. It's not GM, with its much-lauded 2011 Chevrolet Volt range-extended electric car. It's not even Toyota, which sells the uber-hybrid Prius and has built roughly two-thirds of all the hybrid-electric vehicles on the planet.

It's Hyundai.

2011 Hyundai Sonata

2011 Hyundai Sonata

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Korean competitor

It tied with Toyota for second place in the UCS rankings, which scores each carmaker based on the “smog-forming and greenhouse gas emissions (primarily CO2) in its U.S. automobile fleet." Note, however, that this year's award was based on 2008 model-year data.

Last December, Hyundai claimed a different win: Its Corporate Average Fuel Economy (CAFE) for 2010 was the highest of "all major manufacturers," including "traditional leaders like Honda and Toyota." One contributing factor: Hyundai sells no pickup trucks.

2010 Hyundai Tucson

2010 Hyundai Tucson

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30 mpg, fewer V-6s

Hyundai squeaked over the magic 30-mpg mark, with a CAFE rating of 30.1 mpg. The top five also included Honda at 29.7 mpg, Volkswagen at 29.6 mpg, Toyota at 29.4 mpg, and Kia (which is closely tied to Hyundai) at 28.0 mpg. The company may soon release similar data when the EPA completes ratings for all 2011 model-year vehicles.

A year ago, Hyundai startled the industry by saying it wouldn't offer V-6 engines in its midsize 2011 Sonata sedan or its compact 2011 Tucson crossover. Then, this summer, it pledged to raise its fleet average fuel economy to a remarkable 50 miles per gallon by 2025.

2011 Hundai Sonata Hybrid, La Jolla, California, October 2010

2011 Hundai Sonata Hybrid, La Jolla, California, October 2010

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Adding its own hybrid

Next month, the first 2011 Hyundai Sonata Hybrid models will arrive at dealers, adding a new and significant player to the short list of makers who sell affordable hybrid-electric cars in significant volume (more than 10,000 per year, say). It is rated at 37 mpg city, 39 mpg highway, and offers electric running as high as 71 miles per hour.

Within a couple of years of the Sonata Hybrid, Hyundai is expected to launch a plug-in hybrid based on the BlueWill concept car it has displayed at auto shows over the last two years.

2010 Honda Insight - rear three-quarter

2010 Honda Insight - rear three-quarter

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Honda Insight struggles

Honda, on the other hand, is widely acknowledged to have missed the mark with its 2010 Honda Insight five-door hybrid hatchback. While it was the least expensive hybrid in the U.S. on launch, its first-year sales were anemic. And its 2011 CR-Z sports hybrid is only a two-seater, making it a minor contender despite its $19,200 price.

The Insight's mild hybrid system does not allow electric-only running, which some view as an important marketing tool. And its EPA ratings of 40 mpg city, 43 mpg highway are bested by those of the larger midsize 2011 Toyota Prius (51 mpg city, 48 mpg highway), which has a base price just a couple of thousand dollars higher.

Worse yet, the Insight sits right next to the Honda Fit on showroom floors. That highly ranked subcompact has more interior space, is more fun to drive, gets mileage ratings of 28 mpg city, 35 mpg highway with a five-speed gearbox, and is several thousand dollars cheaper. Frankly, you really have to want a hybrid to pick the Insight over the Fit.

2011 Honda CR-Z

2011 Honda CR-Z

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Not standing still

Honda is hardly standing still.

It unveiled a prototype of an all-electric Honda Fit EV 10 days ago at the 2010 Los Angeles Auto Show, and it is developing a new, more powerful hybrid system for larger vehicles. It is still the only carmaker to sell a natural-gas vehicle (the Honda Civic GX) in the U.S. market, and its reputation for good gas mileage is a huge marketing asset.

In volume cars, its new Civic compact sedan will launch for 2012, and it is said it to be slightly smaller in exterior size, but more capacious and far more fuel-efficient than today's model lineup.

Still, Hyundai's showing has surprised many observers. Given its aggressive expansion, and the market-share gains it captured during the auto-sales meltdown of the past two years, it seems well positioned to give Honda a run for its money.

Which can only be good for green car buyers.

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Comments (9)
  1. From what I have read about the Hyundai R&D philosophy, I think they ahve probably been developing all their 2011 line for the past several years. This is a pretty safe way of getting the new Hyundai vehicles out their in an increasinly cynical market.
    The old saying used to be "you get what you pay for" but in may cases now, you get much less.
    Altho I don't own a Hyundai Product (yet) it will be the next new vehicle that we buy.
    What really gave me a jolt was the other day in Wall Mart, I noticed that Hyundai is now suppling all their gas engine generators, and water pumps!
    Amazing...since in the past I have tried 2 different brands of gas powered generators for our home, and they were both expensive junk.
    I hope the Hyundai brand 'lives long and prospers'
     
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  2. OK, let's set aside the UCS bogus ranking and look specifically at the EPA data from which it is based.
    http://www.nhtsa.gov/staticfiles/rulemaking/pdf/cafe/CAFE_Performance_Report_April_2010.pdf
    Consider for a moment only the imported cars in to the USA from Toyota, Honda, and Hyundai and you will see a very different story.
    Toyota IP CAFE 45.7 mpg
    Honda IP CAFE 35.2 mpg
    Hyundai IP CAFE 35.8 mpg
    You can see that Toyota OFFERS cars that are head and shoulders above the competition. The fact that people may also like Toyota's trucks is what is bringing them down.
    So the UCS rankings are meaningless to a car buyer. UCS ranking reflect buyer behavior not the company's greenness.
     
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  3. Mr. Briggs -- We rank the automakers on what they put on the road, not on just what's available. Automakers are the ones giving the consumers buying options, marketing those options and competitively pricing them to sell. To win the rankings, an automaker need to make its popular cars cleaner and its cleanest cars popular.
    Outside of the rankings, we urge our members and interested consumers to buy the most fuel efficient vehicle that meets their needs.
    Other people have brought up the same point about our rankings. To be clear, the rankings aren't intended to be read as purchasing advice and we haven't seen any evidence that our members or interested consumers view it that way. Rather, it's a way to keep automakers accountable for the products they produce. I'll be sure we make that clearer when we release our next rankings in the coming years.
    Thanks,
    Aaron Huertas
    Press Secretary
    Union of Concerned Scientists
     
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  4. @Aaron Huertas. Thank you for your kindly response. I understand your point of view.
    I suppose it might be possible for Toyota to make all its vehicles (including pickups) very fuel efficient so that it could out-rank Hyundai who doesn't sell pickups. But it seems a little impractical.
    Toyota deserves on-going recognition for as a leader in very efficient vehicles, particularly for the Prius. The Prius is 25% more efficient than other similar hybrids, it is sold at a reasonable price, and sells in high numbers. Toyota, and only Toyota, offers people a chance to buy a very fuel efficient vehicle and that point is totally lost in the UCS ranking.
    Personally, I think Honda's number 1 ranking in this list is flatly absurd given their repeated failures in the marketplace with hybrids. I suspect also, their failure of their ridgeline pickup truck models also have a lot to due with their winning of this award.
    So what the UCS is say is that because Honda produced a crappy pickup truck and Toyota produces great pickup trucks, Honda is a greener "vehicle" company. Sorry but that is meaningless.
    If what the UCS ranking really shows is that truck are less fuel efficient than cars, then just say so. Don't give an award to a company just because it doesn't produce trucks (or only produces them in low volume.).
    Sorry for the harsh tone.
    Later
    John C. Briggs
     
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  5. All those makers are w/in ~1 mpg of each other so the crown is not much other than bragging rights. Honda/Acura is obviously taking it seriously tho as they have increased the MPG on the Odyssey, Accord & TSX ... w/out resorting to anything like direct-injection. When they do start introducing new tech Hyundai will be pushed into the background again.
     
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  6. @John Briggs -- Fleet mix definitely plays into it. But when you crunch the numbers, the Civic is actually Honda's environmental workhorse. They sell a lot of them and it's a relatively fuel-efficient car, though obviously not as fuel-efficient as the best hybrids. We did single out Toyota's performance with hybrids -- their significant Prius sales alone gave them a several point bump. But that also tells us that Toyota could be doing more to improve its conventional vehicles.
    The report also includes a breakdown of automaker performance by vehicle class. We're pretty transparent about how we do the rankings and any analytical method will have pluses and minuses. We're always refining how we do this analysis and the feedback on blogs this year has been really substantive and helps us understand how people perceive the rankings.
    Our hybrid scorecard looks more in-depth at how each automaker builds and prices its hybrids: http://www.hybridcenter.org/hybrid-scorecard/index.html. The Prius gets all due credit there.
    Thanks,
    Aaron
     
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  7. @Aaron Huertas. Thanks again. In truth I didn't read your report, only Mr. Voelcker's article. I will take a look at the UCS report itself.
    Thanks
    John C. Briggs
     
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  8. Let me see if I got this right, by some measure of "green", people actually think Honda is a contender ?
    Don't they make the some of the most vile and environmentally damaging internal combustion motors know to man in the form of the lawn mower ? Yes they do ! The common lawn mower, running for one hour,pollutes more than a new automobile running for 8 hours. What about Motorcycles ? Does Honda make those too? YES ! and do they have pollution control devices on them ? NO ! So lets examine some facts, Honda makes cars- yep- government regulated for pollution.
    Honda makes un-regulated internal combustion motors for lawn mowers, generators, landscaping equipment, and motorcycles all over the world and you choose to call them green? DON'T THINK SO !!!!
     
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  9. Well, the numbers are not final but EPA shows Hyundai the winner for MY2010 at 25.9 MPG CAFE (better than Toyotas 24.5 MPG).
    http://www.epa.gov/otaq/cert/mpg/fetrends/420s10002.pdf
     
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