Why Subaru and Mazda May Be Forced to Build New Hybrid Cars

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It’s green, but it doesn’t plug in. (Source: Subaru)

Among major automakers, Mazda and Subaru stand out as two manufacturers with no plug-in hybrid electric vehicles (PHEVs) in their respective lineups, and this fact could become a problem with the California Air Resource Board (CARB). According to Automotive News, a recent CARB hearing showed California regulators unwilling to exempt automakers from developing zero-emissions models. Without them in their lineups, Mazda and Subaru would either have to purchase credits from automakers or develop plug-in cars by 2018, despite their sterling reputations in fuel economy.

Mazda and Subaru were not alone in appealing the rules that will require automakers to have electric vehicles or hydrogen fuel cell cars on the road by 2018. Automotive News reports Mitsubishi, Volvo, and Jaguar-Land Rover joined the two Japanese companies at a May 18 CARB hearing to petition regulators to ease up mandates on smaller companies. In some measure, it worked.

CARB officials conceded that small automakers could get by with plug-in hybrids rather than pure electric vehicles. With Volvo and Mitsubishi plug-ins headed to American in the next calendar year, that would not be a burden for either manufacturer. (Jaguar has an EV in development as well.) Yet Mazda and Subaru, both of which rank in the top three among automakers in total fuel economy, would be forced to purchase credits from companies flush with EV sales (i.e., Nissan and Tesla) or get their plug-in programs going.

In some respects, both of these smaller manufacturers have an argument to make based on the economical lineups they produce.

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 Mazda3: 41 MPG but not gas-free. (Source: Mazda)

In the case of Mazda, the company’s Skyactiv engines deliver remarkable economy in the compact and midsize classes. The Mazda3 gets an EPA-estimated 40 miles per gallon; Mazda6’s 40 highway miles per gallon may be even more impressive. These specs allowed Mazda to claim best fuel economy of any major automaker without having a hybrid (let alone a plug-in) on the market.

Subaru wasn’t far behind, placing third after Mazda and Honda with only a single hybrid vehicle on the market. If they are not guzzling gas like any of the Detroit automakers, should California be forcing them to develop plug-in models for their efficient lineups? Since it would create more economical vehicles on the road, we welcome a firm stand by CARB, but in fairness these two manufacturers are not the bad guys.

For its part, CARB would do itself (and the residents it aims to protect) justice by holding the line on its plug-in requirements for the coming years. GM’s data on Chevy Volt use shows drivers are already covering 80% of their trips without gasoline. Expectations for the 2016 Volt featuring 50 miles of EV range are even higher (90% in our estimates).

Barring any changes to the CARB policy, both would have to call the regulators’ bluff or pay the piper in ZEV credits. Wouldn’t it be nice if automakers invested in a greener future without regulators forcing their hands? That won’t happen anytime soon. In the meantime, we have to wonder how an automaker with six straight years of record sales can make the argument it can’t afford to develop an EV.

Tesla raised the same question in a statement to Automotive News, saying smaller automakers still had “billions in operating profit and cash” they could use for the job. Maybe the little guys aren’t so little after all.

Source: Automotive News