Detroit Execs' Hybrid Parade to D.C. Too Little, Too Late

UPDATED In the interest of avoiding another Jetgate, Detroit’s Big Three auto executives are leaving their leased corporate aircraft on the ground this week. All three will drive to Washington, D.C. to present “viability plans” as part of their second bailout plea. Ford (s F) CEO Alan Mulally set off on the roughly 520-mile trip yesterday in an Escape Hybrid, and General Motors (s GM) chief Rick Wagoner plans to drive most of the way today in a Chevy Malibu Hybrid (he may also hop into a Chevy Cobalt XFE or Buick Lucerne for part of the trip), the companies announced yesterday. (Update: Wagoner ended up driving a prototype of the Chevy Volt for part of the trip.) Chrysler also decided to join the hybrid parade, saying CEO Robert Nardelli would drive a hybrid vehicle (no model named) to congressional hearings on Friday.

The idea of legislators ridiculing millionaire executives into traveling like ordinary folks has generated no small amount of buzz (just a few examples: New York Times, LA Times, Reuters). But if the Big Three want to demonstrate commitment to innovation and fuel-efficient vehicles (aka viability), the models they’ve chosen offer too little evidence, too late.

Take the Chevy Malibu Hybrid, which GM lists on its web site as having “very limited availability.” The EPA rates it at just 34 mpg for highway driving — an underwhelming 2 mpg improvement over the regular Malibu. For comparison, the 2009 Toyota Prius and Honda Civic Hybrid get 45 mpg on the highway. Even the regular Civic, rated at 36 mpg for highway driving, has better fuel economy than the hybrid Malibu.

The 2009 Ford Escape Hybrid, on the other hand, has better fuel economy (31 mpg highway) than any other SUV. But a shining example of forward thinking it is not. As New York Times car reviewer Christopher Jensen put it earlier this year, “When Ford introduced the 2005 Escape Hybrid it broke new ground. Unfortunately, the automaker didn’t continue that tradition with the 2008 update, which comes across not as hot stuff, but as barely warmed-up leftovers.”

Part of Mulally, Wagoner, and Nardelli’s goal on this trip is showcase their cars. That much seems doable. But if they had put this kind of spotlight on improving fuel-efficiency when the Malibu, Escape, and other vehicles were in development, their industry could be on a very different road today.