If you listen to the car companies, hybrid cars are the best invention since sliced bread. While there are many reasons to buy a hybrid car, including a new tax incentive for US owners, it doesn’t hurt to have a good understanding of how they work. This article explores the myths, benefits and drawbacks of owning one of these new “green” vehicles. Are hybrid cars really more cost effective? What is a hybrid car? Basically, it’s a normal, fuel efficient car that has two motors ? an electric motor and a gasoline powered motor. It also uses a special system to store braking energy in an onboard battery.
But why buy a hybrid? Why not buy a traditional gas or electric powered car? Keep in mind, one of the basic rules of science is the more complex the system, two motors instead on one, the more often it will break down. This is a hard question and, in the minds of some experts, not fully answered. The reason for two motors is in the strengths and weaknesses of both types. The electric motors use no energy during idle, they turn off. At low speeds, electric use less than gas motors. Gas motors do better at high speeds and can deliver more power for a given motor weight.
That means during rush hour stop and go driving, the electric motor works great and, as an added benefit, does not produce any exhaust thus reducing smog levels. At higher speeds above 40 mph, the gas motor kicks in and gives that peppy feel so many car owners look for when driving on the highway. Another benefit of having the gas motor is it charges the batteries while it’s running. Many an electric car owner has been stranded just out extension cord range of an outlet. Hybrid owners can forget about this annoyance; the gas motors starts automatically when the battery gets low and proceeds to charge the battery.
A hybrid no longer needs to be plugged into an outlet. All this new technology comes at a price: a hybrid car is not cheap. With two motors and all the ancillary systems to manage them plus a large battery and a regeneration system used to produce electricity during breaking. All of these systems must work together, adding complexity. While cars and, just as importantly, the computers that control them, have become more reliable, they still fail. Meaning owners of hybrids can expect more time in the shop and more expensive repair bills.
Hybrids are the most gasoline efficient of all cars; they usually get 48 to 60 mpg (claimed). Not bad, but only 20% to 35% better than a fuel efficient gasoline powered vehicle like the Honda Civic that gets 36 mpg. But, when comparing prices, hybrids cost about $19,000 to $25,000 and hybrid cars cost anywhere from $14,000 to $17,000 ? now the justification to buy one is becoming less clear. Indeed, the difference in average annual fuel bills, $405 for a Honda Insight versus $635 for a Honda Civic, means you may never make back the added initial cost of the more expensive hybrid.
Over a ten year period of owning a hybrid will save you only $2,300, less than the cost difference for comparably equipped cars. Much of the fuel efficiency comes from improvements in aero dynamics, reduction of weight and, the biggest change: a smaller, less powerful gas engine. In reality, any car will get substantially better mileage just by reducing the engine size. The biggest reason this is not done has to do with the customer, they simply want the extra power. But hybrid cars can offer more than just great gas mileage, they offer many other advantages as well.
Even a small increase in fuel economy makes a large difference in emissions over the life of the car. Additionally, in large cities where pollution is at its worst, they make an even larger difference since they produce very little emissions during slow city driving and the unavoidable traffic jams. While the US has just started producing hybrids, the Japanese are already a step ahead. Honda and Toyota are the two largest producers with their hybrids, the Insight and Prius.
US car makers are actually far behind. In fact, during recent introduction of a new hybrid by GM ?the Mercury Mariner, they admitted they had to license over 20 separate technologies from the Japanese. US car makers still are known for SUVs and trucks ? Ford has even introduced a hybrid version of its popular Escape SUV. Industry analysts say US hybrids are just token models, not a legitimate attempt to get into the market. The reason for hybrid introduction has to do with Corporate Average Fuel Economy (CAFE) regulations. Current standards say that average mileage of the fleet of cars sold by an automaker should be 27. 5 mpg.
This means that if an automaker sells one hybrid car that gets 60 mpg, it can then sell four less efficient cars, like SUVs and trucks that only get a poor 20 mpg. To offset perceived reliability problems, companies are offering strong guarantees: The Honda Insight has an eight-year/80,000-mile warranty on most of the power train, including batteries, and a three-year/36,000-mile warranty on the rest of the car. The Toyota Prius has an eight-year/100,000-mile warranty on the battery and hybrid systems and a three-year/36,000-mile warranty on everything else.
The motors and batteries in these cars do not require maintenance over the life of the vehicle. The engine in a hybrid doesn’t even need any more maintenance than in any other car. Due to the fact that hybrids have regenerative braking, brake pads may also last longer than those of a normal car. So what’s a smart car buyer to do? Are the savings in gas worth the extra headaches and substantially higher cost? Maybe, it depends on how you drive. If you drive majority of your time in the city, you may save enough to warrant the extra cost. Remember the gas motor turns on to charge the batteries if you use the electric motor all the time.
Long-distance commuters and people with lead feet will see fewer savings. Then, there is always the environment ? something that’s always worth thinking about. A hybrid cuts emissions by 25% to 35% over even the most fuel efficient gas powered cars. The tax incentive is another big motive ? it can reduce your cost up to $3,400 depending on the cost of the vehicle. However, the tax break only applies to the first 60,000 vehicles produced yearly by each manufacturer. Toyota’s Prius, for example, will quickly reach that number of sales before year-end.
Experts think in the end, hybrids are only a transition technology. The real cars of the future are Hydrogen or methane fuel cell powered cars. As for the environment, there are many ways to reduce emissions including using public transport, car pooling, riding a bicycle or even walking. Even just buying a smaller, fuel efficient car makes a big difference. So, think about what you’re really trying to accomplish before buying a hybrid ? don’t just throw your hard earned dollars at new technology for its own sake because it may be fashionably “green”.