You are probably familiar with hybrid cars especially if you live or work in any major metropolitan area. You likely see them every day on the road as you commute to or from your job. Today, a hybrid car looks just like any normal car you may see. In fact, you may not even realize that a particular model is hybrid.
Most hybrid cars today don’t drive any differently from normal vehicles, they just get far better gas mileage. For those who have to drive a lot, the fuel savings you can get from a hybrid can make a huge difference in a household budget.
But what exactly are hybrids? How do they work? What are the pros and cons and how can you know that a hybrid is right for you? This article will break all that down for you.
Table of contents
- Hybrid car infographic.
- What are hybrid cars?
- What kinds of hybrid cars are there?
- How do hybrid cars work?
- What are the pros and cons of hybrid cars?
- How long do hybrid cars last?
- How do you charge hybrid cars?
- How do hybrid cars save energy?
- Do hybrid cars help the environment?
- Why should I buy a hybrid car?
- How much do hybrid cars cost?
Hybrid cars are vehicles that use both gasoline and electricity for power. Hybrid cars use both electric motors and gasoline engines to make the vehicle move. Almost all the automakers in the U.S. offer some form of a hybrid car and they can range from supercars like the Porsche 918 to minivans like the Chrysler Pacifica Hybrid and pickup trucks like the Ram 1500.
There are four kinds of hybrid cars on the road today. They include:
- Parallel hybrid cars – also called just hybrid cars: These cars are the most common type of hybrid and offer an electric motor that works in parallel with a gasoline engine to propel the vehicle. The most common example of this kind of hybrid is a Toyota Prius. Parallel hybrids propel a car in one of three ways:
- The electric motor and gasoline engine work together to power the wheels
- Just the gasoline engine powers the wheels in certain situations
- Just the electric motor powers the wheels in certain situations
- Mild Hybrid, Micro Hybrid, or Light Hybrid cars: These are vehicles that sit between full hybrid cars and battery-powered electric vehicles or EVs. The battery is generally used to give an added boost to the gasoline engine. These engines generally don’t offer as much fuel efficiency or savings as a full hybrid vehicle, but they do help increase range for more conventional vehicles. Many new cars on the road today use some form of a mild hybrid system. An example of a mild hybrid car would be the 2020 Mercedes-Benz GLE. You can read more about that vehicle and its hybrid capabilities, here.
- Plug-in hybrid cars or PHEV cars: These are cars that are a blend of a hybrid and an electric vehicle or EV. In order to fully charge a PHEV car, you need to plug it in. Some have gasoline engines and a PHEV system. On short drives, the car uses the battery power to propel the car. On longer drives, the gasoline engine kicks in. An example of a Plug-in hybrid car would be a 2019 Chevrolet Volt or a 2019 Kia Niro.
- Series hybrid cars or Range-Extended Hybrids: These are vehicles that use the gasoline engine to recharge the battery pack for the electric motor so that the car can drive. The electric motor drives the wheels, and the gasoline engine simply recharges the battery so that the car can continue to go a little further. These vehicles run off of battery power and need to be plugged in to “refuel.” They only use the engine to recharge the battery. An example of this kind of hybrid would be a BMW i3 with the range extender gasoline engine.
When researching hybrids you may also see electric vehicles or EVs listed. Technically these are not hybrids but electric cars. They are powered by the electric motor not a gas engine. To propel these cars you have to plug them in and let them charge. Examples of an EV would include any Tesla or a Chevrolet Bolt.
Hybrids work by joining the power of a gasoline engine with the power of an electric motor to drive the wheels. Complex computer systems that vary from manufacturer-to-manufacturer and vehicle-to-vehicle determine the exact way that a particular hybrid works, but they all work off the same general principles below:
- At low speeds and when gently accelerating from a stop: When you step on the gas pedal, the electric motor kicks in and powers the drive wheels. Once you hit a certain speed, usually around 35 to 40 miles per hour, the gasoline engine will kick in and power the wheels.
- At high speeds: When you are on the highway and maintaining speeds, the gasoline engine does the work. If you are in a regular hybrid or a mild-hybrid vehicle, the gasoline engine generally recharges the battery that powers the electric motor at this point.
- When you take your foot off the pedal to coast or when you brake: When you coast downhill or up to a stop and when you apply pressure to the brakes in a hybrid car, you are generally using the battery. Depending on the situation your hybrid car may also charge the battery at this time as well.
- When you accelerate quickly or mash the gas: In general, a hybrid will use the gasoline engine and electric motor to push power to the wheels and get the car moving quickly.
Hybrids can be front-wheel drive, rear-wheel drive, or all-wheel drive depending on the model. Most hybrid cars also come with what is known as a continuously-variable transmission or CVT. This system is a shiftless transmission that changes continuously through a range of power. Most people don’t love CVTs because they often have a strange disconnected feeling. Some luxury brands offer hybrids with conventional automatic transmissions.
In addition to specialized transmissions and engines, hybrids also are very efficient. Why? Because:
- Electric motors are very good at accelerating. They can produce maximum power from a dead stop making some hybrid cars feel very quick off the line.
- Gasoline engines are very efficient at cruising speeds over long distances.
Some of the most efficient cars for 2018 include:
- Hyundai Ioniq Hybrid which gets an EPA estimated 58 mpg combined
- Toyota Prius which gets an EPA estimated 56 mpg combined
- Camry Hybrid which gets an EPA estimated 52 mpg combined
- Kia Niro which gets an EPA estimated 50 mpg combined
- Honda Accord Hybrid gets an EPA estimated 46 mpg combined
There are also a number of options if you’re interested in a hybrid SUV.
There are many pros and cons of owning a hybrid car. They are generally greener, more fuel-efficient and they are easy to drive. The cons are that they tend to be more expensive than normal gasoline-only cars and you may need to replace a hybrid car’s battery if you own it for a long time. That can be a pricey project.
The pros of owning a hybrid car include:
- Increased fuel efficiency.
- Greener than their gasoline-only counterparts.
- They are great in the city because they don’t emit as much greenhouse gas and generally they run on cleaner electric power.
- They can accelerate quickly from a stop thanks to their electric motors.
- They are very easy to drive and drive just like a regular gasoline car.
- You can get a tax write-off in some states for owning and driving a hybrid car.
- There is no “range anxiety”– unlike electric vehicles, hybrids generally (unless you own a PHEV) don’t need to be plugged in to have power to drive. Because they have gasoline engines all you have to do is keep the gas tank full and you can go anywhere.
The cons of owning a hybrid car include:
- Most hybrids cost considerably more to buy or lease than their gasoline-only counterparts. In fact, you can expect to pay as much as 10% to 15% more for a hybrid.
- Most of the tax benefits of owning a hybrid car are being phased out. Be sure to check with your local and state tax officials to see what kinds of benefits might still be available.
- You may have to replace the battery pack on a hybrid if you are buying a used hybrid car. Most hybrid batteries are covered by the warranty that comes with the vehicle and that warranty often will transfer from one owner to the next. If you do have to replace a battery pack and the vehicle is out of warranty, you can expect to pay around $3000 for it.
- Some maintenance can be more expensive for hybrid cars than it is for gasoline cars. It pays to do your research if you’re considering buying a hybrid car.
Hybrid cars, just like regular gasoline cars, can last many, many, years as long as they are well-maintained. Most hybrid’s come with warranties that cover things like the electric motor and batteries. In states like California, Massachusetts, Maine, New York, Rhode Island and Vermont car manufacturers are required to offer battery warranties that last up to 150,000 miles. Those warranties often transfer from owner to owner so if you are buying a used hybrid car you will likely be covered.
Most hybrids do not require any additional or different maintenance from regular gasoline cars. In some cases, however, the maintenance can be slightly more expensive because some of the technology is more advanced than it is in gasoline cars. If you are considering buying a hybrid car be sure to do your research on maintenance costs.
Charging hybrid cars is relatively simple, depending upon the kind of hybrid car you have. If you have a regular hybrid car, you don’t need to do anything except fill up the gas tank to keep the battery charged. The gasoline engine in regular hybrid and mild hybrid cars sends power to the generator to keep the battery pack charged.
If you have a plug-in hybrid car, then you will likely need to plug your vehicle in on a regular basis to keep the batteries charged. In some cases, the gasoline engine will provide some charge to the battery pack, but to top-up the batteries you will likely need to plug in. Most plug-in hybrids come with their own charging cable that can be plugged into a household outlet and charged overnight.
You can also find public chargers at places like grocery stores and the mall. There, you park and plug your PHEV in while you shop. You are charged for the amount of electricity that the car uses to charge. Once you’re finished you can unplug and drive away. Most public chargers are run by companies like ChargePoint and you can connect a credit card to your account to pay for the charging.
Hybrid cars save energy because they are more fuel efficient than their gas-only counterparts, they use technology like regenerative braking, and they generally have a more aerodynamic design.
Gasoline engines tend to operate better at higher speeds while electric motors are more efficient at low speeds. By combining the two types of power, a hybrid car saves energy and can go longer distances while using less fuel.
Regenerative braking is another way that hybrid cars save energy. Most hybrid cars have regenerative braking systems. Regenerative braking systems work by turning the friction caused by braking, into energy.
Electric motors, when run in one direction, can turn electrical energy into mechanical energy. When an electric motor is run in the opposite direction, the electric motor can turn mechanical energy back into electricity. When the electric motor is reversed, in braking, it sends power back to the battery and charges it. Thus, regenerative brakes save energy by taking the braking power and putting it back into the battery.
Because efficiency is the name of the game for hybrid cars, they also get a very aerodynamic design. That means that the shape of the vehicle, both on top and underneath, is changed so that air can flow smoothly around and under the car. That helps reduce what is known as aerodynamic drag and makes the car glide through the air much more efficiently. You’ve probably noticed the weird shape of a Toyota Prius or a Honda Clarity PHEV, right? It’s shaped that way not because a designer thought it looked good, but because it is more aerodynamic and thus more energy efficient.
Yes, hybrid cars do help the environment because they emit less CO2 and greenhouse gases that cause everything from health and breathing problems to global warming.
Today many cars are very fuel efficient and many states like California and New York have made environmental standards tougher for car emissions. Those emission requirements help cut down on the amount of pollution that is released into the air by cars that burn diesel or gasoline alone. Hybrids put out even fewer emissions thanks in a large part to their electric motors.
It is important to consider that, while a hybrid or plug-in hybrid does offer cleaner technology, it doesn’t have zero impact on the environment. The battery packs that are used in hybrids still contain heavy metals and other elements that are environmentally damaging to mine and dispose of. If you have a plug-in hybrid car, you will need to use electricity to recharge and that electricity could be generated by unclean technologies like coal.
There are many reasons to consider buying a hybrid car. They include:
- They are just as comfortable to drive as regular cars and often come with nicer interiors than the standard cars because they are more expensive.
- They are green and emit less CO2 gasses. As our planet becomes warmer, thanks to emissions and global warming, it’s important to consider the impact that your driving has on the environment. Plus, if you have kids who suffer from allergies or asthma, driving a greener car puts fewer pollutants into the air that can aggravate your child’s symptoms.
- Hybrids come in all kinds of body styles and price ranges. You can find one that fits your lifestyle without sacrificing good looks, performance or space requirements.
- You will definitely save money on gas. As gasoline prices fluctuate your pocketbook won’t be as affected as much since you won’t have to fill up as frequently.
If you’re considering purchasing a hybrid car you should do your research first and make sure that the car you’re considering meets the needs you have. Consider things like:
- Space needed: How much space inside your car do you need? How many passengers do you typically carry?
- Cost: Hybrids can cost more than regular cars and it takes quite a while to recoup that cost in the amount of money you may save on gas.
- Logistics: If you are considering a plug-in hybrid you should consider whether or not you have an available outlet outside your house or in your apartment building that you can plug into, otherwise you won’t be able to use the full benefits of a plug-in hybrid.
If you have a long commute at highway speeds a hybrid might make sense. If you have to drive a mile to work, however, it might not make sense to pay the additional cost for a hybrid.
In general, hybrid cars tend to cost more than their gasoline-only counterparts though prices can vary greatly. Their cost is often offset by state and federal tax incentives. Hybrids can sticker for anywhere from several thousands of dollars less t0 $13,000 more than their gasoline versions and it really depends on the type of hybrid and brand of vehicle you are purchasing.
There are many catches to getting the tax incentives for owning a hybrid car and it may make sense to chat with an accountant or tax professional to get the real scoop on whether or not you’ll qualify for any tax offset.
By taking into consideration your own needs, how hybrids work, the pros and cons of owning a hybrid car, and the cost considerations of owning a hybrid, you will certainly find the right hybrid for you.