We'll start off today's column with a little game. It's called: Guess which automaker currently offers the most plug-in hybrid vehicles. I'll give you a minute to think it over.
If you're like me, you're probably thinking that it's Toyota. They're obsessed with going green, right? I mean, they've got that hybrid Highlander, and that hybrid Camry, and that normal-sized Prius, and that little Prius, and that big Prius that looks like a regular Prius wearing a backpack. But no, it isn't Toyota.
OK, so maybe it's Honda. They're all into that "Power of Dreams" crap, and they're always trying to change the world in one way or another, whether it's with that unibody pickup, or that V6 luxury sedan, or that robot that climbs stairs about as well as Joe Pesci in Home Alone 2. But it's not Honda, either.
"OK, then which company DOES make the most plug-in hybrids?" you might be wondering. Is it Chevrolet? Nope. Ford? Nope. Nissan? Nope. "So," I can hear you thinking. "Is it some stupid startup company we've never heard of that TECHNICALLY offers the most plug-in hybrid vehicles, but none of them currently exist, sort of like Acura TECHNICALLY offers an exotic sports car, even though we'll all be driving hovercrafts by the time it reaches dealers?" And once again, my answer is: Nope.
That's because the company that offers the most plug-in hybrid vehicles of any automaker is none other than… Porsche.
That's right, ladies and gentlemen: Porsche currently offers three different plug-in hybrid vehicles, which is more than anyone else. More than Honda, more than Toyota, more than Ford. There's the e-Hybrid e-Panamera, the e-Cayenne Hybrid-e, and the e-918 Spyder, all of which offer the last word in e-luxury, and e-technology, and e-performance, combined with an electric motor that provides approximately the same range as a golf cart.
And this brings me to my point today, which is: hybrid luxury cars need to go away.
My first reason for this viewpoint is obvious: because the kind of person who has enough money to afford a hybrid luxury car probably doesn't really care all that much about fuel economy. Case in point: the starting price of the outgoing Mercedes-Benz S400 Hybrid was just under $93,000 with shipping. Ninety. Three. Thousand. Dollars. For a car that offered four more miles per gallon in the city, ZERO more miles per gallon on the highway, and — I swear this is true — 175 less horsepower than a standard, gasoline-powered S-Class.
I'd be curious to learn about Mercedes-Benz's thought process here. Do they really think some rich guy is going to get the S400 Hybrid over the S550 purely because he'll get nineteen miles per gallon rather than fifteen miles per gallon? Do they think he's going to say to his wife: "HEY HONEY! COME CHECK THIS OUT!! I'm done with PASSENGER VAN gas mileage! SEE THAT? I'm in CARGO VAN territory now!!!" HELL NO! He's going to say: "My name is Dale, and I work for Mercedes-Benz, because employee lease programs are the only way they could possibly unload these ridiculous cars."
Pricing isn't the only problem with hybrid luxury cars. In fact, it's not even the main problem. That's because the main problem is: virtually every one of them is absolute crap.
To prove this, I turn back to the e-Panamera e-Plug-In e-Hybrid, which costs an impressive $97,000 with shipping. This is a princely sum of money to pay for an automobile that looks like a pickle.
It's even more of a princely sum when you consider the specifics: namely, the fact that the e-Panamera-e can travel just twenty-two miles on electric power alone. In other words: this thing can't even go from Central Park to Newark airport without the "range extending" gasoline engine kicking in to give you a boost. Whereas the high-performance Tesla Model S P85 – which, incidentally, costs less than the e-Panamera and has more power – won't need a charge even if you drive from Central Park all the way to Central Park… by way of Delaware.
But enough picking on Porsche, because they're far from the worst. My personal favorite is the new Range Rover Plug-In Hybrid, which isn't out yet in the States. Thank God. I say this because the new plug-in Range Rover is capable of traveling… wait for it… yes, that's right, ONE MILE on electric power alone, before the gasoline engine kicks in. This is a triumph of engineering technology, or at least it would be, if the plug-in Range Rover were the size of an asteroid.
So hybrid luxury cars aren't especially capable, and they appeal to the kind of person who doesn't really care about fuel economy. Then why would automakers bother with them?
You're probably thinking the answer is fuel economy regulations, but considerable research (90 seconds on Google) reveals that isn't the case. You see, Porsche is under the Volkswagen Group umbrella, which means they don't really need to be more fuel-efficient. Instead, the whole company needs to meet global fuel economy regulations – and that means all Volkswagen really needs to do in order to balance out the gas-guzzling Porsches is sell a few more 0.7-liter Lupos to people in Russia who believe sidewalks are for Д) parking, and Б) street fights.
So why DO luxury brands create hybrid cars? Clearly they're not very practical, and they're very expensive, and they don't sell very well. So what could be the purpose? Why would they waste their time?
I have a theory: it's all about brand perception. I think these luxury car companies put out hybrids a ruse to get people talking about them differently; thinking about them in a new light; telling everyone how "green" they are. And if this column is any proof, it seems to be working. Dammit.
@DougDeMuro is the author of Plays With Cars. He owned an E63 AMG wagon and once tried to evade police at the Tail of the Dragon using a pontoon boat. (It didn't work.) He worked as a manager for Porsche Cars North America before quitting to become a writer, largely because it meant he no longer had to wear pants. Also, he wrote this entire bio himself in the third person.