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Hybrid Cars

Learn how hybrid cars save money and reduce carbon emissions, and find hybrid car resources.

Hybrid cars are economical and environmentally friendly. [© Shutterstock, 2010]
© Shutterstock, 2010
Hybrid cars are economical and environmentally friendly.

Rising gasoline prices have made hybrid cars an increasingly popular choice for drivers who want a more fuel-efficient vehicle, as well as environmentally conscious folks who want a car that produces fewer harmful emissions. This article provides a brief overview of hybrid cars.

Hybrid cars were first introduced in Japan in the late 1990s. The first hybrid car became available in the United States in model year 2000. Early U.S. hybrid car models were the Honda Insight and Toyota Prius. As more people began looking for cars with better gas mileage, more auto manufacturers began producing hybrids. Today, popular hybrid car models include the Toyota Camry Hybrid, Toyota Highlander Hybrid, Toyota Prius, Ford Escape Hybrid, Mazda Tribute Hybrid, Mercury Mariner Hybrid, Chevrolet Silverado Hybrid, GMC Sierra Hybrid, Saturn Aura Greenline, Saturn Vue Greenline, Honda Civic Hybrid and Nissan Altima Hybrid.

Hybrid Cars Defined

A hybrid car combines two motors, or powertrains: an electric motor and a gasoline (internal combustion) motor. The electric motor is powered by a large battery pack, which is automatically charged in two ways. First, the gasoline engine charges the battery pack. Second, the battery is charged by regenerative braking. Regenerative braking means that the energy otherwise lost while the car coasts and brakes is converted into electricity and stored in the battery.

Advantages of Hybrid Cars

Hybrid cars combine the advantages of an electric car — good acceleration, no emissions, and the ability to go from no power to full power instantly — with a gasoline-powered car's ability to power heavier loads and cover longer distances. A study by the American Council for an Energy-Efficient Economy, cited by Consumer Reports, found that hybrid cars produce 29 percent less smog-forming nitrogen oxide emissions than nonhybrid cars.

In general, a hybrid car's electric motor is used for acceleration, and the gasoline motor supplements the electric motor for driving long distances. This results in better gas mileage than nonhybrid cars. According to Consumer Reports, the Toyota Prius has the best gas mileage (44 mpg) of any five-passenger hybrid car the organization tested.

Disadvantages of Hybrid Cars

There are some disadvantages to hybrid cars. Because they have two powertrains — gas and electric — hybrid cars are more expensive than traditional cars. The hybrid car's battery pack is heavy and takes up space. Plus, hybrid cars' fuel efficiency isn't the only factor to take into account when making an economical car purchase. Though hybrid cars are more fuel-efficient than nonhybrid cars, their upfront cost may offset those savings.

Types of Hybrid Cars

There are two main types of hybrid cars: full hybrids and mild hybrids. Both types have an automatic start/shutoff, which means that the gas engine shuts down when the car stops and restarts when the accelerator is applied. This feature saves fuel that would otherwise be wasted by idling.

Full hybrid cars can run on electric power alone at low speeds. When more acceleration is needed, the gas engine steps in to support the electric motor. Since full hybrid cars can run on electricity alone in some situations, they are more fuel-efficient than mild hybrid cars. Full hybrids are typically more expensive than mild hybrids, however. Examples of full hybrids include the Toyota Prius, Toyota Camry, Chevrolet Tahoe, Ford Escape and Nissan Altima.

In mild hybrid cars, electric power is used only when the driver accelerates or to support the gas engine when the driver is passing or driving up hills. They often have a parallel design, in which the propulsion system is connected to the hybrid car's wheels. Mild hybrids aren't as fuel-efficient as full hybrids, but they are less expensive. Examples of mild hybrid cars include the Chevrolet Malibu and Saturn Vue Greenline.

Driving and Maintenance for Hybrid Cars

For the most part, driving a hybrid car is the same as driving a nonhybrid car. Some drivers, however, might notice the fact that the engine starts and stops. This happens more smoothly in some hybrid cars than in others, and is less likely to be noticed by the driver.

Honda and Toyota hybrid cars don't require any special maintenance compared to the upkeep of nonhybrid cars. The battery life of a hybrid car battery can last for the car's lifetime. In fact, some states require that hybrid car manufacturers provide up to a 150,000-mile warranty for hybrid car batteries.

Future Hybrid Cars

In the future, hybrids may achieve even better gas mileage and fewer emissions that today's models. Upcoming models — called the plug-in hybrid car — will have a battery that can be recharged simply by plugging them into a household electric outlet for a few hours.

Tested plug-in hybrid cars have shown gas mileage ratings of 67 mpg and more than 60 percent fewer emissions than traditional gas-powered cars. They are expected to be on the market relatively soon; some are estimating that buyers will be able to purchase a plug-in hybrid car as early as 2010.

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