Tuesday, September 3, 2013

Test Drive: Luxury Hybrid wrap-up

After spending some time with two luxury hybrids - the Lexus ES300h and the Lincoln MKZ Hybrid - albeit slightly more affordable hybrids based on technology that is derived from a less expensive platform mate, I am not totally convinced that these cars are ready for mainstream consumption. In many ways, the very idea of a hybrid is counter to the concept of luxury, which is often seen as being able to do without compromise. However, hybrid vehicles are inherently a demonstration in compromise because in the vast majority of instances, performance is sacrificed at the altar of  fuel efficiency. While there are other hybrids on the market that supposedly do not give up performance, they also fail to significantly improve fuel economy. In many ways, there are simply better alternatives if you want a luxury car that still gets reasonable fuel economy.

That said, of these two cars, the Lincoln wins on exterior appearance and presence. It simply does a better job of looking like a luxury sedan from the outside, especially given that enormous grille. While it may not win any beauty contests, it certainly has a great deal more style and panache than the rather ho-hum appearance of the ES300h. Lexus knows its audience well and went with a much more conservative body, but made the blunder of attaching the new corporate spindle grille to it, trying to give it a sportier appearance, but only succeeding in further confusing the car as to its nature.

Step inside, however, and it is essentially a draw. The Lincoln has materials that feel good to the touch, but look cheap and unbecoming in a vehicle of this price class. The Lexus, on the other hand, has the exact reverse issue with materials that look fantastic, but feel terribly hard and cheap to the touch and are extremely inconsistent in their application throughout the car. Both cars offer rather unique approaches to interior design that will likely be love/hate for potential buyers, but neither car is so bad as to be entirely unbearable.

When it comes to performance, however, things skew in favor of the Lincoln ever so slightly. This is in large part due to the better steering, more engaging chassis, and generally more normal car feel of the MKZ, showing just how good the underpinnings are on this car. Once again, while not particularly bad, the Lexus simply lacks anything resembling engagement and, as a result, it is simply so sleep-inducing that you will believe that Ambien comes as part of the package. However, as good as the performance feel of the MKZ is, it is the Lexus that shows just what a luxury car should ride like with its pillowy suspension. In terms of gadgets, there is nearly parity in both vehicles, with available navigation, panoramic sunroof, and self-parking capability a part of each car's option list.

In the end, it would seem that the Lincoln is the better car of these two. However, the truth of the matter is that I would honestly have neither car, even if they were presented to me for free. The cars themselves are fine vehicles, but for thousands less, you can get a similarly equipped car built off the same platform and lacking little in the way of amenities. Certainly, there are other factors to consider, such as brand cachet or service experience, but neither car is so compelling in these areas as to be able to justify the added cost over their less-expensive platform mate.

And ultimately, this is a key contributor to why I would never bother to consider either of these. Right now, there is still a pretty sizable price premium for the hybrid technology resulting in higher initial purchase prices that would require substantial amounts of driving to offset with fuel cost savings. As Americans drive less and the less, the costs take longer and longer to recoup. Combine that with EVs that are starting to become more affordable and conventional gas powered as well as diesel powered cars becoming increasingly efficient and miserly on their fuel consumption, it makes it even more difficult to make the case for getting a hybrid, much less a "luxury" hybrid. Additionally, for both cars, the conventional gas-powered counterparts offer great fuel economy to begin with and substantially more power.

This is not to say that I cannot appreciate a hybrid. The upcoming Porsche 918 is a hybrid that I would love to test drive. GM has indicated that it has not ruled out the possibility of a hybrid version of the Corvette. Even Ferrari has expressed interest in possibly building a hybrid. These cars will be focused on offering performance on par with or better than the current gas-only vehicles, but will utilize less fuel and may use the new technology to boost performance envelopes through by adding such functionality as torque vectoring. The technology from these hybrids could eventually trickle down to the rest of the lineup and would mean more engaging and fun to drive hybrids. Until then, the MKZ and ESh simply offer too many compromises and are simply not worth the extra expense.

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