Want an SUV or Crossover? At Least Make It Green

Jim Motavalli

Jim Motavalli | Jun 14, 2016

I’m currently driving a Lexus NX400h, which is company code for the hybrid version of its compact luxury crossover. It’s a cake-and-eat-it-too SUV, because you get a relatively large vehicle with every possible extra, and Corolla-type economy of 35 mpg in the city, and 31 on the highway. I’ve been seeing about 30 mpg around town.
 It gets 25 mpg, but you'll still fit in perfectly at that great SUV proving ground--the suburban soccer field parking lot. (Jim Motavalli photo)A friend told me the NX400h was the top choice of his green-minded mother, because her artificial hip demands a car that sits higher. I get this, because of my trick knee and the fact that I have to more or less fall into my ground-hugging Miata.
 
People like me, who think consumers are usually better off in something other than an SUV, have to acknowledge that consumers are voting with their feet. The light truck category (including SUVs), is bigger than cars right now, and crossovers are the hottest segment of all.

The track pad in the Lexus NX400h works like the one in your laptop. So bear that in mind as you balance your morning coffee on it. (Jim Motavalli photo)The NX400h is carlike to drive, and there’s adequate load space (with a power tailgate), but (ease of entry aside) I’m having trouble getting comfortable in it. There simply isn’t enough front-seat legroom. By fiddling with the telescoping wheel I can get reasonably adjusted, but I'm still cramped.
 
Another interesting aspect of the NX400h is its touchpad interface. Since it’s just like the trackpad on a laptop, the learning curve is pretty fast. But moving your finger to change the screen means a distracted look away from the road. I still prefer buttons that you can find by touch—and which, if they’re different sizes or textures, are easier for the owner to use without being distracted.
 The Volvo XC90 "Twin Engine" T8 is proving a big seller--one in five of all XC90s sold. (Jim Motavalli photo)All of this leads me to an interesting revelation from another automaker—Volvo. I went to Spain to drive the all-new XC90, including its T8 “Twin Engine” plug-in hybrid version. If you don’t count diesels (and who’s counting diesels these days?), the Twin Engine (rated at 53 MPGe, or MPG equivalent) is Volvo’s very first dedicated green car on the American market. And it’s a stunner, both fun to drive and loaded down with tech. You can actually drive it in automated mode on the highway.
 
And it’s selling! At a time when most hybrid/electric cars are in the doldrums, the Volvo XC90 plug-in accounts for a full 20 percent of the model’s volume globally, double what the company expected. In the U.S. it’s a mid-pack EV, with 840 sold this year through May.

The new Volvo S90 sedan is going to get the plug-in hybrid treatment, too. (Jim Motavalli photo)The success of the Twin Engine has led Volvo to spread the wealth around, and soon it will offer the same plug-in drivetrain in the S90 sedan and V90 wagons. I’ve seen the stunning S90, and that car plus excellent fuel economy is a compelling package. If Volvo has a flaw now, it’s that because of its excellent safety systems (including a cage for the passengers) the cars tend to be heavy, and thus worse on gas than you’d expect from such an environmentally concerned company.
 
Still, crossovers and SUVs are what Americans seem to want in a green car, so among the hybrid variants the XC90 will probably be the volume leader. A steady, if not spectacular (538 in May), seller is the Ford C-MAX Energi, another crossover plug-in hybrid. I like it a lot, but wish the rear cargo area wasn’t compromised by that extra battery pack. If you want something sportier, there’s Audi’s new A3 Sportback e-tron (another one I enjoyed on European roads). The A3 sold 361 in May.
 
Not sporty enough? From the same VW stable are the Porsche Panamera and Cayenne S-E models. The latter (with a 51 MPGe rating) sold an impressive 191 in May, despite a hefty $106,000 price tag.

Lotsa Americans are kicking the tires on the Tesla Model X--it's the fourth-best-selling car with a plug (and #1 is a Tesla, too). (Jim Motavalli photo)And don’t forget the Tesla Model X! Sales have been increasing every month as Tesla gets them into the supply chain, and May’s total was 1,600. That puts it in fourth place among cars with a plug (and #1 is the Tesla Model S). The Model X (a battery-only car, let’s stipulate) is the top-selling plug-in hybrid crossover/SUV, and that’s saying a lot. Well, it’s saying something, anyway.

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