A lot of people don’t know what hybrid cars are or how they work. We all know about conventional cars. Put gas in the tank, turn the key, step on the accelerator, and off you go. There is a gas station every mile or two it seems. When the tank get lows, simply stop and fill up. It takes about 10 minutes or less and then you are on your way again for another 300 miles or more. But hybrid cars? What are they and why would anybody want one?

Kia Niro hybrid car

Kia Niro Hybrid SUV. Photo by the author

What Is A Hybrid Car?

A hybrid car has a conventional gasoline engine plus an electric motor and a battery. An electric motor creates most of its power when it is turning slowly. A gasoline engine creates most of its power when it is turning fairly fast. A hybrid car has the advantages of both, so it can drive more efficiently than a gasoline car, which means it uses less gasoline. Although a hybrid car may cost a little more when new, its better fuel economy often will more than offset the extra cost over the life of the vehicle. Since a hybrid car burns less gasoline, it also creates fewer emissions — a big plus for the environment.

That said, a fully electric car is even more efficient since electric motors are 3–4 times more efficient than gasoline engines.

Types of Hybrid Cars

There are three types of hybrid cars: parallel, series, and series-parallel. Here’s the simple way to tell them apart:

In a parallel hybrid, the gasoline engine and the electric motor work together to move the car forward. Think of it as a helping hand that helps get the car moving from a standstill and boosts acceleration once under way. In a parallel hybrid car, the engine is almost always on, although the car may be able to start from a rest using the electric motor alone. Usually by the time the car gets to 10 miles per hour, the engine kicks in to help keep it moving.

In a series hybrid, the electric motor does all the work. The gasoline engine is just there to keep the battery charged and is typically not connected directly to the wheels of the car.

In a series-parallel hybrid, the car’s computer can call on the electric motor or the gas engine exclusively or ask them to work together to meet the needs of the driver.

Of course, some hybrid cars come with a plug — those are called plug-in hybrids. There are currently 24 or so plug-in hybrid electric cars for sale in the USA and/or Europe.

Regenerative Braking

All hybrid cars take advantage of regenerative braking. An electric motor becomes a generator when the car is coasting or slowing down. Regenerative braking is a way of recapturing some of the kinetic energy the car has while moving. The brakes in a conventional car turn that kinetic energy into heat, which then escapes to the atmosphere. Regenerative braking recovers some of that energy and stores it in the battery for use later. It’s like getting fuel for free.

Many hybrid cars allow the driver to select how much regenerative braking they are comfortable with. Some drivers have learned how to do “one pedal driving.” As soon as they lift off the throttle, the car goes into maximum regenerative braking mode and slows down. With a little practice, those drivers can go about their daily driving chores hardly ever using the brake pedal. With the electric motor doing the slowing, brakes can last for 100,000 miles or more before they need replacing.

Hybrid Car Cost & Savings

A Hundai Sonata sedan lists for $21,600. It is rated at 28 mpg city and 36 mpg highway. A Hyundai Sonata Hybrid sedan lists for $26,000. It is rated at 39 mpg city and 45 mpg highway. Gasoline prices today are averaging about $2.50 per gallon for regular unleaded.

Will a hybrid car save enough money to offset that $3,400 price difference? The answer is, it depends. If you drive 5,000 miles a year, probably not. If you drive 20,000 miles a year, probably so. Hybrids tend to have somewhat lower maintenance costs, especially for brakes. Part of the allure is driving a more efficient car that pollutes less than a conventional car.

Only you can decide whether a hybrid is right for you. The best way to find out is to go drive one for yourself.

The Sales Process for Hybrid Cars

Not every car dealer is anxious to sell hybrid cars. In truth, many dealers and most of their sales people know less about the cars than you do just by reading this far. Dealers are focused on moving the highest number of cars in the shortest amount of time. They prefer not to educate customers. They would rather you just pick out the color you like best and set you up with the finance manager to complete the paperwork. Sadly, if you want to know more about the advantages of driving a hybrid car, you have to do most of your own research.

Of all the car companies, only Hyundai has a national sales campaign designed to educate people about hybrids. It is running TV ads that try to explode the myths about hybrid cars in a fun, amusing way. Here’s one of the commercials Hyundai is airing right now.

Hybrid Car Rebates, Resale Value, And Insurance

When hybrids were new to the market, there were federal and state subsidies available to help offset part of the cost of the cars. Today, most of those incentives are reserved for plug-in hybrids and fully electric cars but you should still ask your local dealer what rebates are available in your area.

Resale values for used hybrids have been average to slightly better than average. Hybrid buyers are not thought of as aggressive drivers, so many insurance companies offer reduced rates on hybrid cars.

A car’s total cost of ownership is more than just the sticker price. It is a combination of that plus the cost of fuel, maintenance and repairs, insurance, and resale value. You will need to do some research to see if owning a hybrid car makes financial sense for you.

What About The Battery?

Hybrid cars are not new to the market any more. Toyota has sold several million of them worldwide in various models from the entry-level Prius C to the luxury Lexus RX 450h. A decade ago, people used to worry about the high cost of replacing the battery in a hybrid but real-world experience has shown the batteries are as long-lived as most internal combustion engines. There are reports of Toyota Prius sedans with more than 300,000 miles on the odometer. A number of taxi companies use them and report no issues with battery life up to 200,000 miles or more.

Does that mean batteries never fail? No, of course not. Every manufacturer has its own warranty policies when it comes to batteries. Shop and compare is the best advice.

What A Hybrid Car Is Not

A conventional hybrid is not an electric car and doesn’t have a plug. Like we wrote above, there are now “plug-in hybrid electric cars” that do have plugs, but if you hear someone talk about a “hybrid car” without saying “plug-in,” they are almost definitely talking about a conventional hybrid that can’t charge up its battery via an electricity socket in the wall.

You don’t have to look for a charger during the day or plug it in when you get home at night — you just put gas in the tank like a normal gas car — but it also means you can’t wake up every day “with a full tank” (aka “full charge”).

You can put the key in and go as far as you wish with no real worries about running out of battery power. That makes a hybrid an easy first step into the emerging world of higher-efficiency, lower-emissions driving. However, you get the same benefits with a plug-in hybrid yet can also drive much more on electricity, and recharge every night at home and/or every day at work.

A plug-in hybrid seems to be the best of both worlds for the time being, but the extra gear does typically lead to a slightly higher upfront price.

Is A Hybrid Right For You?

With gas prices historically low, most shoppers will need something extra to justify the higher initial cost of a hybrid. Maybe it is knowing you are reducing your carbon footprint. Maybe it is knowing you are getting 10 miles per gallon more than most other people on the road. Or maybe it is just the feeling you get from knowing you are part of a clean energy movement that is growing larger every day.

In addition to terrific gas mileage with lower emissions than a typical gasoline car, hybrid cars are fun to drive. Having an electric motor means faster acceleration from a dead stop. People just love the feel of being pushed back in the seat when they tromp on the gas pedal. Hybrid cars give you more of that feeling than conventional cars do.

The best advice is to do your research online then choose your three favorite hybrid cars and go drive them. You may find that being fuel efficient suits your lifestyle even better than you imagined.


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