Motor Mouth: ‘Green’ cars still a giant waste of money

The only thing environmentalists revel in — more than predicting a fiery doom for our planet — is gloating over the successful replacement of the infernal combustion engine with good, clean electricity. So, it is, then, that there’s been much trumpeting of the news from Norway and, more recently, the Netherlands, where plug-in vehicles have seemingly achieved the enviroweenie’s holy grail: mainstream acceptance.

The numbers are startling. While North Americans remain devoted to their internal combustion dinosaurs drinking, well, dinosaur juice — Toyota sold barely 200 plug-in versions of its Prius hybrid last year in Canada and Nissan only 470 Leafs — both the Netherlands and Norway boast that plug-in vehicles represent more than 5% of their total car market.

Even those impressive numbers don’t reflect the 42-point, above-the-fold headlines that EV sales were generating in Holland last year. In December, PHEVs accounted for an incredible 23.8% of Dutch new-car registrations. Yes, almost one in four cars sold in Holland in December was some form of plug-in electric vehicle, either the plug-in hybrid version of Toyota’s Prius, a battery-powered electric vehicle like the Nissan Leaf or an extended-range EV such as Opel’s Ampera (Chevrolet’s Volt in a slinkier dress). Indeed, four out of the top five selling passenger cars in the Netherlands plugged into the electrical grid. Surely, it is the green car revolution we have all been told is imminent.

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Or is it?

What’s driving or, more accurately now that updated figures are available, was driving the Dutch EV boom was incentives. A recent study by the International Council on Clean Transportation (ICCT) revealed that Holland, along with Norway, is throwing money around like Justin Bieber at a Miami strip club. Taxes and registration fees are waived, electricity is subsidized as are the stations, and parking fees, seemingly an issue in overcrowded Europe, are often waived.

The totality of the incentives is staggering. According to the ICCT, Norwegian subsidies are worth up to 11,500 euros, equivalent to 55% of the cost of a new car. Holland’s numbers are even more generous: Depending on the exact propulsion system and the carbon emissions the government deems it may save (the Netherlands subsidizes plug-in hybrids more favourably than EVs, while Norway promotes pure, battery-powered electric vehicles), going electric in Holland could save you as much as 75% of the purchase price of a Volvo V60 plug-in hybrid.

An Opel Ampera is displayed at the German carmaker's booth on March 5, 2012, at the Geneva Motor Show in Geneva. The Chevrolet Volt / Opel Ampera was awarded

An Opel Ampera is displayed at the German carmaker’s booth on March 5, 2012, at the Geneva Motor Show in Geneva. The Chevrolet Volt / Opel Ampera was awarded “Car of the year 2012.”

Also lost in all the hype is that the Dutch subsidies greatly favour corporations and private business. Private purchasers are, according to Peter Monk and Zifei Yang, authors of the ICCT’s Driving Electrification white paper, eligible for much less (1,800 euros for a privately bought Renault Zoe versus 6,100 euros for a company car, and 20,900 euros for a privately owned plug-in Volvo V60 versus 38,300 euros — out of a purchase price of 51,571 euros — for the company-leased alternative). Small wonder that, depending on the exact nature of your vehicle, up to three quarters of Dutch plug-in sales are to corporations and private businesses. Yes, Holland’s green car revolution is really just a corporate tax dodge.

And the Dutch really have been following the money. As of Jan. 1, the government has reduced its corporate welfare program, and sales of anything that requires an electrical umbilical cord have plummeted. EV and PHEV sales in December were 9,309; in January they were 404. Sales of best-selling models were particularly hard hit; Mitsubishi’s hybrid Outlander dropped to 83 in January compared with 4,988 just the month before. This drop was made all the more calamitous for Mitsu’s electrification prospects since, of the 8,197 Outlander PHEVs sold in Europe last year, 8,009 were to Holland. Other marques saw equally precipitous losses; BMW’s i3 from 225 to 15 units, Tesla’s Model S from 578 to seven and Nissan’s Leaf from … well, you get the idea.

But, you’re thinking, at least they got some of those horrible fuel-sucking pigs off the road with a commensurate reduction in tailpipe emissions and fuel consumption.

Not so fast. According to, “Fleet owners in the Netherlands are finding out that you can overshoot the mark by 80% in fuel consumption with plug-in hybrid electric vehicles.” Arval, a leading leasing company, told Dutch Nos television that the 60 corporately driven Opel Ampera, Chevrolet Volt and Toyota Plug-in Prius vehicles it surveyed were consuming 80% more fuel than their government rating (2.2 L/100 km for the Prius; 1.6 L/100 km for the Ampera/Volt) — the worst case, an extended-range Opel, consuming as much as 7.8 L/100 km.

It seems that while the corporations like the write-offs the tax exemptions bring, the people actually diving these plug-in write-offs aren’t bothering to, well, plug them in, instead often driving them as if they were gasoline powered only (where the Ampera/Volt is particularly inefficient). Indeed, Arval director Dick Bakker told the broadcaster, “Most people don’t use the car properly. If someone with an Ampera or Prius plug-in hybrid is using the same amount of petrol as you in your old (Renault) Clio (subcompact), then we have made few advances over the past few years.”

So here’s another take on Holland’s green car revolution. The Dutch government offered massive tax incentives to promote “green” cars. Corporations welcomed the huge write-offs. The resultant emissions reduction in no way warranted the vast amounts of public monies spent. It’s funny how we haven’t seen that headline.

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A charging cable for a Volvo V60 Plug-In Hybrid automobile by Volvo Cars, is shown in this arranged photograph during the Frankfurt Motor Show in Frankfurt, Germany, on Wednesday, Sept. 14, 2011.

A charging cable for a Volvo V60 Plug-In Hybrid automobile by Volvo Cars, is shown in this arranged photograph during the Frankfurt Motor Show in Frankfurt, Germany, on Wednesday, Sept. 14, 2011.
Hannelore Foerster, Bloomberg

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