Hybrid cars 101
cars can achieve great fuel economy and clean emissions, thanks to powerful
batteries and electric motors that supplement their gas engines or, at times,
drive the car purely on electric power. The best hybrid cars are efficient,
reliable and not much more expensive than their gas-powered counterparts. To
decide which hybrid car is right for you, or whether you should buy a hybrid
car at all, consider the following:
- Choose wisely to make sure your hybrid investment pays
off. A hybrid or
electric car will usually cost more up front than a similar gas-only
model, but plenty of hybrids/electrics -- including the Toyota Prius and Nissan Leaf -- will quickly pay back this
price difference, a ConsumerReports.org study finds, thanks to savings on
fuel, depreciation and more. However, with less efficient hybrids, or
astronomically priced luxury hybrids, it may take a long time to break
- Hybrid batteries carry a required warranty of at least
eight years/80,000 miles,
according to ConsumerReports.org. A replacement Toyota Prius battery currently costs $2,200 to $2,600 -- about the cost of a replacement
transmission for a gas-only car, editors point
out. Hybrid cars have had fewer problems than other cars overall,
- A full-hybrid car uses two different power sources. An electric motor and an internal
combustion engine work together to power the vehicle, and under certain
circumstances the vehicle can be propelled by electric motors alone. The engine keeps the batteries charged, and the batteries assist
when more power is needed, such as during quick starts.
- Mild hybrids such as the Mercedes-Benz S400 Hybrid
cannot run on electric power alone. The engine is shut down when the vehicle is coasting, braking or
stopped, saving fuel and reducing emissions. An unusual starter system
instantly restarts the engine when the brake is released. Mild hybrids typically
have smaller electric motors, but they can still provide some extra power
while the car is under load. Fuel savings are not nearly as dramatic with
mild hybrids as with full hybrids like the Toyota Prius and Ford Fusion Hybrid.
- Technology called regenerative braking is used in
hybrid cars to recharge the batteries. To recapture otherwise wasted kinetic
energy, vehicles with regenerative braking systems run the hybrid car's
electric motors backward to generate electricity when coasting or braking,
which in turn charges the batteries.
- Electric vehicles (EVs) run on battery power alone. You plug EVs into an electrical socket
to recharge. Since there's no gas engine, an electric car pollutes less
and costs far less to run than even a hybrid -- but EVs can only go 60 to
100 miles before you'll need to recharge them. The Nissan Leaf, Ford Focus
Electric and 2012 Mitsubishi i are purely
electric cars. They cost more than many hybrids, but EVs qualify for
federal tax credits.
- Plug-in hybrids combine the best of both hybrid and
electric cars. They can recharge by plugging into an electrical socket, and run on that power alone for 15 to 30 miles
(depending on the car) before a regular gas-powered hybrid engine kicks
in. This way, you may be able to do your daily commuting and errands
without using a drop of gas, but if the battery runs dry you can just add
gas and keep going. The Chevrolet Volt and Toyota Prius Plug-in work this way. They cost more than some regular hybrids, but --
unlike regular hybrids -- plug-in hybrids still qualify for federal tax
- Technology is rapidly evolving. Major automakers are now developing
improved full hybrids, plug-in hybrids and electric cars. Carmakers are
looking for lighter batteries that hold more power. Consumers might want
to wait to see what is available in the next few years before plunking
down cash for a hybrid now.
How long does it take to recoup the
extra cost of a hybrid car?
Sure, hybrids save
you cash at the pump -- but they also cost more than a regular car to begin
with. The question: How fast will a hybrid start actually saving you money?
most cases, within the first year. That's what ConsumerReports.org found in February 2012, when editors
compared 21 fuel-friendly hybrid, electric and diesel cars with their closest
gas counterparts. They took into account not only car and fuel prices, but also
depreciation (a biggie -- it accounts for almost half of a car owner's costs in
the first five years), insurance, loan interest, maintenance, repairs and sales
tax. For electric vehicles, editors also factored in tax credits.
result? Most of the
fuel-sippers will save the typical driver money in the very first year. The
Ford Fusion Hybrid, Honda Civic Hybrid, Hyundai Sonata Hybrid, Lexus CT 200h,
Nissan Leaf and Toyota Prius all make this frugal
A couple of
hybrid/electrics will take six or seven years to start saving you money -- at
least at current gas prices. For the Chevrolet Volt to break even with the
Chevrolet Cruze 1LT in five years, gas would have to
cost $4.27 a gallon. At $4.75 a gallon, the Honda Insight would break even with
the base Honda Fit in five years.
Edmunds.com did its
own hybrid-versus-gas analysis in February 2012 and found longer payback times
-- but editors there considered only the price of the car and the price of gas.
They also published conflicting numbers for a bunch of the cars: For example,
one article says the Toyota Camry Hybrid will take 7.3 years to break even with
the regular Camry, but a second article published the following week puts it at
Of course, gas
prices can always rise -- or you might drive more than the typical 15,000 miles
per year. Either way, you'll save money faster with a hybrid or electric car.
"If gas prices go up -- and a number of signs say they will -- the
break-even times shorten," Edmunds.com says.
New hybrids from Ford, VW, Lexus and
more on the way
Ford launches its
answer to the Toyota Prius v wagon this fall. The
five-passenger 2013 Ford C-Max Hybrid (Base MSRP: $25,200 to $28,200), will
approach 45 mpg overall, Ford's chief C-Max engineer tells The New York Times --
beating the 42-mpg Prius v. A C-Max Energi plug-in hybrid should hit showrooms by mid-2013, Edmunds.com says.