Buying a Hybrid Car

Over the years, hybrid cars have been a staple on the American mass market—but despite the wide visibility and availability of the vehicles, many people are still mystified by what exactly a hybrid car is.

If you're interested in saving green—whether it's the earth or a few dollars in gas money—buying a hybrid vehicle might be a good step. But before you sign that lease or title, there's a lot of information to consider about how the cars work, which type of hybrid vehicle is right for you, or whether a hybrid would be the right choice at all.

How a Hybrid Car Works

The technical definition of a hybrid car is a vehicle that uses more than one form of energy for power and propulsion. For most hybrid cars, that works out to:

  • An internal combustion engine, along with
  • A battery-powered motor.

Typically, a hybrid car will rely primarily on the electric system, which accounts for a higher average miles per gallon (MPG) than in standard gas vehicles. The batteries expel extra power when the vehicle is accelerating and are recharged when it is decelerating or stopped.

The gasoline-powered engine serves as a generator to recharge the batteries. It will also kick in to feed the car power as it's accelerating and once it hits cruising speed.

Still, this duality isn't calibrated the same in every hybrid vehicle. There are several classifications that illustrate the fuel efficiency and power generated by each car.

Types of Hybrid Cars

  • “Mini" hybrid—This type of vehicle uses only a small amount of electricity to help with a car's “Stop-Start" system. It is also referred to as an “eAssist system" and is not typically marketed as a hybrid vehicle.
  • Mild hybrid—A hybrid vehicle that relies primarily on its gasoline-powered engine. Its electric system will kick in only when the car needs more power, such as during acceleration.
  • Strong hybrid—Also called a pure hybrid. These cars use their electrical and gas-powered systems as explained above.
  • Plug-In hybrid—While technically considered a hybrid, these vehicles run almost entirely on electricity. A gasoline engine can be reserved for longer drives.

Hybrid Cars: FAQs

Despite hybrid cars' longstanding place in the market, there are still some frequently asked questions about them. Some of the most common include:

How does the battery charge?

Variations of this question include “Will I have to frequently replace the battery?" and “Will I have to plug the car in?" The answer to both—with the exception of a plug-in hybrid model—is no. In a hybrid car, the battery is charged partly by a generator powered by the combustion engine and partly by regenerative braking.

As the car's brakes are applied, the friction generates electricity that is used to recharge the battery. The same charging process is used when capturing some of the car's momentum as it cruises downhill.

Plug-in models' batteries do need to be plugged in to an outlet in order to be charged enough for longer journeys.

Is a hybrid car's city driving MPG as good as its highway MPG?

While the exact Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) estimates for a car's average MPG will vary based on make and model, hybrid cars typically get better city mileage than highway mileage.

That's thanks in part to the frequent stopping in city driving, allowing a hybrid car to utilize its regenerative braking system and keep its battery fully charged. Hybrid cars can also rely more heavily on electricity when driving at lower speeds.

If I buy a hybrid car, are there only limited model types to choose from?

In a word, no. The hybrid system has been applied to a number of different car types, including compact cars, sedans, coupes, SUVs, and trucks.

Pros & Cons of Hybrids

Benefits of a Hybrid Car

  • Lower gas bills—Probably the most well known argument for hybrid cars is their fuel efficiency. Hybrid cars can range up to an estimated 50 MPG, which can lead to some serious savings at the pump.
  • Better environmental impact—While the hybrid car is not the perfect model for the environment, it produces much fewer harmful emissions and greenhouse gasses than traditional gas-powered vehicles.
  • Higher resale value—Appearing more rarely on the used car market, and often maintaining reliability over time, hybrid cars can hold a higher resale value than a gas-only car from the same model year.

Disadvantages of a Hybrid Car

  • Not as roomy.
    • In order to accommodate the larger battery packs needed to run the car, some internal space might need to be sacrificed. A typical hybrid sedan may lose up to 5 cubic feet of trunk space to fit all the electronic equipment.
  • Lower to the ground.
    • Due to the added weight of the dual-propulsion systems, most hybrid cars ride lower to the ground. This could cause issues if you live in an area with dirt roads or infrequent road maintenance.
  • Maintenance complications.
    • While a hybrid car doesn't require any additional maintenance compared to a gas-powered car, it's recommended to buy replacement parts made specifically for hybrid vehicles, which may be harder to come by and more expensive.
  • Unknown future battery performance.
    • So far, hybrid batteries have seemed to endure the test of time. Toyota has reported that some original Prius batteries have exceeded lifespans of over 200,000 miles. Still, there are many different variations of batteries currently used on the market, and long-term research on many of them is still lacking.
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