Hybrid Heaven Or Nickel Plated Nightmare

Leonardo DiCaprio, Sandra Bullock, Jeff Goldblum. Sting, Gwyneth Paltrow, Charlize Theron. Tom Hanks and Robin Williams. Talk to an A-list celebrity and the chances are that they will tell you that they drive a Toyota Prius.

The same goes for the Guardian-reading chattering classes. And if they don’t drive one now then the chances are they sold it when they changed it for something that is newer and even greener.

This reflected glory ensured that thousands flocked to buy one too, either to tout their green credentials in the most conspicuous way possible – or even because they genuinely believed that they were helping the planet by doing so.

But were they?

No, of course not.

The Prius pollutes the environment, just like every other car. In fact when you look at its whole life rather than just the running costs then the results are startling.

The main problem is the 30lbs of nickel used in the batteries. It’s mined in Canada (causing environmental pollution there) and then shipped to Wales to be refined. From there it goes to China to be further processed before finally being shipped to Japan to be made into batteries. After that, of course, the completed cars have to be transported all over the world to be sold. It is estimated that the environmental cost of manufacturing the whole car is the equivalent of burning 100,000 miles-worth of petrol so it starts with a handicap from the beginning.

But let’s write off the initial environmental costs of manufacturing the batteries as the cost of doing business at the cutting edge of environmentalism.

Gotta be greener to run though, hasn’t it?

Er, well, that depends. There are three main causes of environmental pollution by cars: sulphur dioxide, carbon dioxide and particulates and all are produced when fossil fuels are burnt. The Prius produces fewer of all three when it’s being driven because the battery is used to supplement the petrol engine for much of the driving or even used by itself for as the sole power supply for low-speed, short journeys.

(Critics point out that the silent electric motor can confuse pedestrians as they don’t hear it coming and so are more likely to step out in front of it – but heh, what’s a human life compared to saving the planet? Can’t make an omelette without breaking eggs, can you?)

However, you don’t get anything for nothing as so its batteries must be charged from the car’s petrol engine or, in the case of newer hybrids, the electricity grid and therein lies another problem; this energy must come from somewhere and the majority of the UK’s power stations are still fossil fuel powered, so the environmental pollution is just displaced away from the point of use to the point of production.

So, the Prius won’t help you save the planet. If you want to do that (always assuming, of course, that you believe that man-made climate change is a fact…) then you must do something different. Walk more, ride a bike and use public transport.

Or just buy a second-hand car. If it is ten years old and does 35 miles per gallon – and you’d struggle to buy a family car that doesn’t manage that these days while still being reasonably dependable and reliable – then a new Prius would need to have been used for 100,000 miles before it catches up.

Better still, if you buy something like a small diesel hatchback on the second-hand market when it’s about five years old then the Prius will never catch up. Toyota might dispute this but despite being asked by the UK’s Government Car Service they didn’t produce any evidence to support their claim that lower fuel consumption of the Prius means that the lifetime carbon costs are lower than comparator cars. And in 2007 the Advertising Standards Authority rapped them for misleading advertisements and banned them from ever showing the adverts again in the same form…

So, the Prius might not be a green car but is it a bad car? Well, no. It isn’t. It’ll never be the enthusiasts’ choice because it’s too boring to drive with stodgy handling and uninspiring performance. But it is very reliable, relatively cheap to run and has solid residual values.

It has also been useful in stimulating motorists to think about alternative fuels, which is essential for environmental, fiscal and logistical reasons. After all, if more people use alternative fuels then this will leave more lovely petrol for the rest of us to use in our V8-engined sports cars.

So buy one if you must but don’t do it just to demonstrate your green credentials. Every car says something about its owner and you don’t want your car to scream lazy, herd-mentality, pompous, pious fool, do you?

Oh, and remember. Actors, pop stars and celebrities have many, many talents. They are rich, famous and adored by millions for a reason. It doesn’t mean that they are that bright though, does it?