Hybrid cars 101

Hybrid 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 even.
  • 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, ConsumerReports.org finds.
  • 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 credits.
  • 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?

In 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.

The 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 list.

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 six years.

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.

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