EPA Says Toyota Prius Hybrid No Longer 'Most Fuel-Efficient'

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2011 Toyota Prius

2011 Toyota Prius

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Ask Americans about fuel-efficient cars, and many will name the iconic Toyota Prius hybrid, with gas mileage rated by the EPA at a combined 50 miles per gallon.

So you'd expect the EPA to rank the Prius as the best midsize car on its list of Most and Least Fuel Efficient Cars, right?

It's not there.

Instead, it's been displaced by the battery-electric 2011 Nissan Leaf, which doesn't use fuel at all. The EPA rates the Leaf electric car at a combined 99 MPGe, or equivalent miles per gallon.

A footnote on the EPA site explains, "MPGe is miles per gallon of gasoline-equivalent and represents the miles per amount of energy of a non-gasoline fuel that is equivalent to the amount of energy in a gallon of gasoline. For an EV or PHEV, 33.7 kilowatt-hours of electricity represents the same amount of energy as one gallon of gasoline."

2011 Nissan Leaf, Nashville, October 2010

2011 Nissan Leaf, Nashville, October 2010

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But does this make sense? The majority of U.S. car buyers today likely aren't quite ready to buy a plug-in car, if indeed they could get one (orders for both the Leaf and the 2011 Chevy Volt are backlogged due to limited production).

But based on the EPA's best and worst list--which shows an automatic and a manual winner for each size category--potential buyers might completely ignore the Prius, unless they go into the larger list and sort by gas mileage.

Our reader (and Prius owner) John C. Briggs wrote to the EPA questioning the omission of the Prius from the list. On Monday, an unnamed EPA employee responded to Briggs, signing the note as "FuelEconomy.gov".

Here's what s/he wrote:

Our Best-Worst list shows the best automatic transmission vehicle and best manual transmission vehicle in each category. Because the Toyota Prius is classified as a midsize car and only comes with an automatic transmission, it is competing against the Nissan Leaf which has a rating of 106 city/92 Hwy (MPGe). The Hyundai Elantra is the most efficient manual transmission vehicle in that size class.

When you exclude EVs (there is a link at the top of the table that allows you to exclude EVs), the Prius replaces the Nissan Leaf as the most efficient Midsize car with an automatic transmission.

2011 Chevrolet Volt drive test, March 2011

2011 Chevrolet Volt drive test, March 2011

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This is admittedly confusing, and we will soon be launching a redesigned version of this list. It is my understanding that we will be dropping the transmission distinction by next year and we will be simply listing the best in each category regardless of the transmission type.

When we initially came up with this list, it was typical for the vehicle with the top fuel economy to have a manual transmission.  It was pointed out that most people don't want a manual transmission and that it should show the top automatic as well. Since then automatic transmissions have improved and evolved with continuously variable transmissions,  automated dry double clutch transmissions, optional manual shift paddles on automatic transmissions, etc.

Now our current method for ranking vehicles is increasingly out of phase with the market. Hopefully we will be able to improve on this list soon.

Briggs comments, "Personally I think this shows the folly of MPGe as a metric and don't think the Nissan Leaf should be placed in the same category, but it is debatable."

Since we do a bit of software development here at High Gear Media, we have one very quick and simple suggestion for the EPA: Switch the list's default view to the one that excludes electric cars.

But then, make the link to include electric cars a whole lot more visible.

There! We've done our bit to improve government for the day. If only Congress and the President could manage to do the same thing....


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Comments (22)
  1. De MPGe concept seems misleading because there is no gasoline equivalence between EV's and gasoline powered vehicles, unless the electricity for EV's is derived from gasoline which is rarely the case of course. It's a pity that ICE's turn most of the BTU's from gasoline in heat making them functionally heaters with traction as a by product but the fact is they use a resource that is useless for EV's unless converted into electricity first, but in that case there is no longer 33.7 KWH of energy in a gallon but probably less than half of that for even the most efficient conversion process. A Prius would in fact have better MPG than a Leaf....

  2. Only our brainless Feds can come up with a measure so meaningless and pointless as "MPGe." First off, a gallon of gasoline as burned in an ICE does NOT produce 33 Kwhr's worth of propulsive energy. For proof, realize 1) most of the energy in that gasoline is released in the form of heat, not kinetic energy, 2) look at the Chevy Volt. We all know that it gets
    roughly 5 miles per kilowatthour of juice. We also know that when it is using its gasoline range extender, the mileage is 35 MPG, which means, obviously, that a gallon of gasoline is producing (very roughly) 7 kilowatthours, not the 33 implicitly claimed by the EPA. The mileage for an EV is,
    strangley enough, expressed properly in terms of electricity, as in miles per kilowatthour

  3. As an environmental scientist, what EPA is doing here is flawed and misleading. The list for electricity driven and gasoline driven cars should be kept separate or this will absolutely convey the wrong information. The Nissan Leaf is entirely electric driven. The Toyota Prius is entirely gasoline driven (because the electric motor is powered off of gasoline put into the tank).
    Here EPA is using the energy content of both fuels to make this comparison, which they define as the gasoline-equivalent. This is simply wrong to do in this case, as this does not convey the proper information that a consumer is looking for.
    If the consumer looks at fuel economy as a surrogate for operation cost, then the cost per unit energy must be factored

  4. Well, Prius isn;t the most efficient car anymore in mid-size. Is that so difficult to digest ? Looks like there is a big anti-ev bias in this post, sad for a "green car" website.

  5. No anti-electric car bias here! But it's necessary to add reality and context: The total number of plug-ins that will be sold in the U.S. during 2011 will be 25,000 at best, which is roughly 1/20th of the number of Priuses Toyota will build. That ratio will improve over time, but for the moment, you can buy a Toyota Prius at will, whereas there are months-long waiting lists for any plug-in vehicle. Hence, the Prius is a better bet for buyers who need to replace their car now or want to reduce their carbon output today.

  6. Disagree, your slant on this was obvious and irritating enough for me to sign up to make a comment. The Leaf is an order of magnitude more efficient, deal with it. Don't fight it or be an apologist for the 2nd best technology. I have two cars, a Prius and a Leaf. The Leaf exposes my Prius for the polluting dino that it is. May they all go extinct soon. I drive my Leaf 100+ miles to work and back 5 times a week with no compromise on speed, and with no funding of terrorists, or poisoning of everyones air. Yes, I may have to drive state to state soon wich will exceed my Leaf's range and make me have to drive my high MPG POS Prius, but I have so far been able to avoid that. looking forward to quick charging on the interstate 5 soon. Go EV.

  7. With respect, the Leaf is not an order of magnitude (10x) more efficient than a 50-MPG Prius. On a wells-to-wheels carbon basis, depending on the fuel used to generate the electric power, it is up to 4x as efficient unless you manage to recharge it on one of the very, very few grids that is predominantly renewable. The Leaf will, however, get cleaner over time as the grid gets lower-carbon, which the Prius will not.

  8. I always equate "efficiency" as a measure of energy usage. Here you almost imply carbon output as a measure of efficiency. I am not sure if that makes sense. I guess if we were burning gasoline to make electricity, using CO2 as a substitute for efficiency would work.

    Interestingly, the EPA seems to be ducking the issue of CO2 output for EVs.
    I don't recall them doing this in the past.
    Thinking about solar powered EV efficiency. You would probably have to start with the sun's energy of 1366 W/m^2 and figure out how many m^2 of roof space needed per 100 miles. So could efficiency be measured in m^2/100 miles? Although this would be the PV and EV efficiencies together. But, it is carbon free

  9. My Prius gets 40mg real world in the city and 45+ ok the highway. However, I traded up to the Leaf from an old 4*4 4 Runner that was getting between 10 & 15 mpg (Rated @ 16). So for all the people with old trucks, suvs and inefficient cars, the leaf is easily 10 times as efficient.

  10. As an EV advocate, I don't really see this as anti-ev bias. There is room for discussion of the relative merits of hybrids, EVs and EREVs.

    Let's imagine two car categories, 1) midsize cars with a 73 mile daily range, 2) midsize cars with a 400 mile daily range. Reasonable people might be interested in the greenest vehicle in one category or the other and both should be listed on the EPA summary.

    By EPA's own admission, this is probably more important than the automatic versus manual distinction.

  11. This article and discussion demonstrate the futility of making these vehicle category distinctions. If a driver seeks an efficient vehicle, they should have access to an efficiency list that ranks ALL vehicles. The current system requires you to know the answer and access the "correct" category list. Drivers seeking efficient cars shouldn't have to be engineers who already know the answer to their question.

  12. Before EVs become practical, I can only regard those are toys. Even if you do not drive much, no need to worry about the range, don't you ever go far distance to visit somebody or have a vacation somewhere? What are you going to do if the only car you have is an EV? Rent a car? Doesn't that sound ridiculous?

  13. Polluting the air we breath with with fossil fuels, importing most of our energy needs, fighting wars to assure our petroleum needs. Doesn't that sound ridiculous?

  14. Electricity also generates pollution, and disaster in Japan's recent case. My car is a 2010 Prius which consumes only 1/3 of the fuel my previous car, Infiniti M35X. Prius may no longer the champ of fuel economy, but all my transportation needs can be satisfied with just one car.

    Lacking of range and quick re-fueling ability, an EV is not suitable for long range and traveling. You got to have another car which also generate pollution during production.

    I love the concept of EV. However, I would not buy one before it has a useful range to me. FYI, I drive 93 miles twice a day, plus running errands.

  15. No, Frank, will all due respect, ridiculous is expecting a new technology to be 100% the same as the old technology, while conveniently ignoring the down side of the old technology. For 80% of people, EVs will work fine for a commuter car, a second car, etc... My wife has a Mini Cooper that's too small for long trips so we rent a car a week or two a year rather than drive it. Saves as much on the mileage saved to just about cover the rental itself, too.
    Did I miss something or does every EV have to be everything to every consumer? Sorry the EV world hasn't reached your overly demanding expectations but don't worry, others will make changes while people like you continue to complain.

  16. No, Frank, will all due respect, ridiculous is expecting a new technology to be 100% the same as the old technology, while conveniently ignoring the down side of the old technology. For 80% of people, EVs will work fine for a commuter car, a second car, etc... My wife has a Mini Cooper that's too small for long trips so we rent a car a week or two a year rather than drive it. Saves as much on the mileage saved to just about cover the rental itself, too.
    Did I miss something or does every EV have to be everything to every consumer? Sorry the EV world hasn't reached your overly demanding expectations but don't worry, others will make changes while people like you continue to complain.

  17. Unfortunately, I need to drive 93 miles twice a day. Often 120 to 130 miles if I need to run errands. The requirements already exclude the possibility of even using an EV just as a second car. If the range can be extend to 200 miles which might be 150 miles in real life, I will get one as the second car.

  18. Frank,
    If your needs are not meet by a BEV, fair enough. However, dismissing BEVs as "toys" is going too far. A very large number of individuals (myself included) commute much less than 100 miles per day. The supposed statics is 80% or Americans commute less than 40 miles per day.

    As for the pollution aspects of EVs, don't forget that there are many clean ways to make electricity and states are working to rapidly implement them.

  19. Do they never travel? I have not known anybody who never travel. You can not travel much with an EV, right?

    You are right and wrong about making clean electricity. Yes, it exists. Wind and Solar are clean. No, it is far from enough, or even significant. Most of the practical ways to generate electricity are dirty, dangerous and even causing disasters. Haven't we heard enough how terrible China's gigantic dam could be? What about our own Hoover dam? It has caused major disasters in Mexico already.

    Then, how about batteries? Don't those cause heavy pollution?

    Don't make me wrong. I do welcome new technology. Again, the reality is the current EV technology is far from practical. I would wait a few more years before buying one.

  20. @Frank,
    As for the traveling, there are a number of answers to this. For me, the LEAF is either a second or third car. As a second car, it is unlikely that both vehicles would need to travel long distance in a single day, so it is fine. But I wouldn't own two Nissan LEAFs as my only vehicle.

    As for clean electricity, look at it this way, take things one step at a time. If you can make electric vehicle now, and start adding clean electricity to the grid mix, you may have a bright future indeed. The alternatives are not pretty.

    As for batteries, every vehicle made today has a lead acid batteries (highly toxic). But it is not a problem. Why? because the government mandates recycling. It can be done.

  21. Were I getting the second car, an EV would top my list, if it would guarantee a 100+ miles range under any condition. Actually, I would drive far more than my first car.

    Some reviews confirmed that in their test, the claimed 100 miles range usually means 70 miles or so. In that case, I will get stuck helplessly on my way back home. AAA will not bring me a gallon of electricity. More likely, I will get a hefty bill from a tow truck company.

  22. The Prius has the fourth highest MPG of all EPA listed vehicles. The other three vehicles are EVs. This list contains 15 fuel efficient vehicles, yet the Prius doesn't make the cut.

    I understand how they made this list, but given the very limited availability of EVs (I can't buy any in Massachusetts), I think the list is a bad idea.

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