That’s because, before Christmas I stumbled across the FIA-backed Ecotest website. This tests new vehicles on the basis of both fuel economy and exhaust pollution. Amazingly, the first car to be given a five-star rating (and 92 points out of a possible 100) was a VW Passat 1.4TSI fuelled by clean-burning natural gas. Only the second-generation Toyota Prius managed to match the Passat’s eco-score.
But surely the Passat should be judged to be even more eco-friendly than the Prius, because it does not rely on rare earth metals and batteries full of chemicals. I find the simplicity of an inexpensive turbocharged petrol engine which burns one of the least Co2-intensive fossil fuels very appealing.
At Detroit, I asked VW’s Research and Development boss Urlich Hackenburg why his company was bothering with hybrids, when its gas Passat was as eco-friendly as a Prius by any measure, and better as an overall engineering proposition.
"Yes, there are a lot of people in the mid-West [of America] who have huge gas reserves and are interested. But gas technology is not high volume." He left his answer at that. He also supported the development of the hybrid system (which is similar to the one used by the Fusion) which made its debut on the NCS concept coupe, "because they [hybrids] are very good in cities". Another VW source, however, admitted that the marketing appeal of the hybrid was almost overwhelming.
Dr Hackenburg’s brevity might be because, as an engineer, he knows that gas-power would be a very cost effective way of significantly reducing the Co2 output of a standard-issue car as well as keeping exhaust pollutants to a minimum. Don’t forget that Toyota developed the hybrid to achieve both better economy and meet California’s ultra-strict pollution regulations.
Could the world switch to gas as, say a stepping stone towards, a hydrogen future? Or even bet on gas for fuelling half of all the cars on the planet. Well, maybe.
Recently, new gas extraction techniques (which can blast gas out of shale) in the US have helped boost global reserves to 60 years’ supply, but even that estimate is rising very rapidly. The US has long desired ‘fuel security’ and would love to be able to live without Middle East oil. Huge gas reserves could be what the country has been praying for. Even US environmental groups are - with caveats - behind the idea.
I'm going to stick my neck out and suggest that there’s quite a good chance that the US could be on the verge of a ‘dash for gas’ that will leave expensive and complex hybrid cars as nothing more than a developmental dead end.