Redefining "Better"

Perhaps we’re going to get to the point where “performance” has less to do with 0 to 60 and more about efficiency.

I’ve been spending the past several days driving the Lexus CT 200h. The “h” stands for “hybrid."

It is a compact hatchback. It has a base MSRP of $32,050. The way it was optioned and had the obligatory “delivery” fee brought in, the sticker reads $39,030. Which may seem a lot for a hatch. But remember, we’re talking Lexus here, and it is every bit a Lexus.

Here’s the thing that really impressed me about the car (and no, I am not using this space to write a car review): Without paying any attention to what I was doing with the gas pedal, I was averaging just over 45 miles per gallon. That is better than the numbers on the window sticker (43 city/40 high-way/42 mpg combined). But that’s what I got. I suppose for purposes of full disclosure I should admit that last year I did win a contest driving the 2014 Honda Accord Hybrid, getting 82.7 mpg, and while I didn’t drive that one in an ordinary manner, I did drive in a way such that the good people in San Antonio didn’t want to do something not nice to me.

Anyway, there is the CT 200h. A Lexus. A car with leather and amenities. A stylish hatch. And 45 mpg.

The number of hybrid vehicles on offer in the market has proliferated since the early days of the Toyota Prius in the U.S., which went on sale here in 2000. And with vehicles like the Chevrolet Volt, Tesla Model S, Nissan LEAF, VW eGolf, and Kia Soul EV, customers have the opportunity to go fully (or mainly, in the case of the Volt, which also has an internal combustion engine, which is primarily a generator, however) electric.

One of the things that has long been a feature of hybrids (we’ll let the EVs go for the moment) is a display that indicates what is happening with the powertrain at any given moment. The driver can see whether the battery for the electric motor(s) is being charged or is discharging, whether the engine is providing the power for the wheels to turn or whether the battery is providing the energy. And there is typically another display that provides information on how “green” one’s driving behavior is.

Once, these displays were front and center. Now they are generally accessed only by scrolling through a few screens. Which is, in my estimation, a good thing. I’ve long thought that to the extent that consumers pay attention to what’s going on with the battery and the motor and the engine and the wheels and the arrows joining them or the leaves growing on a screen or a ball bouncing higher and higher or whatever . . . the purpose of the hybrid vehicle—getting from A to B with great fuel efficiency—is eclipsed by the calling of attention to the hybrid nature of the vehicle.

A recent study in the Journal of Consumer Research by George E. Newman, Margarita Gorlin, and Ravi Dhar of Yale University, “When Going Green Backfires: How Firm Intentions Shape the Evaluation of Socially Beneficial Product Enhancements,” in effect, underscore my point.

The authors write: “When a company makes a product that is better for the environment, consumers are actually less likely to purchase it if the environmental benefit is perceived as intentional rather than the result of some other effort.” Also: “If a company intentionally made a product better for the environment, consumers believe the product’s quality must have suffered because the company diverted resources away from product quality.”

Now while they are writing about things like household cleaning products, I’d argue that this holds true for cars. When you show the “green” screen of how a hybrid works, people—as in people who are simply looking for a new car—begin to wonder.

Some 15 years after the first Prius (to be fair, the Honda Insight, which went on sale in the U.S. in 1999, was the first modern gas-electric hybrid, but “Prius” has become synonymous with “hybrid”), some people are still running the numbers on the price/benefit of the powertrain of a given hybrid in a way that never occurs to them were they to be buying a “regular” car.

Perhaps it is not an issue of thinking that quality suffers, but that it is somehow out of the mainstream. This, despite the fact that according to Autodata (motorintelligence.com), Toyota delivered 234,228 Priuses in 2013, which is more vehicles than the entire Buick division (205,509).

Which brings me back to the CT 200h. A nice car with surprising fuel economy. A performance car? Not by any means. But perhaps we’re going to get to the point where “performance” has less to do with 0 to 60 and more about efficiency. At which point people will think that something “better for the environment” is, well, better.