Hybrid Confusion

By Chandra Orr

August 15, 2008 5 min read


What potential owners should know before making a purchase

Chandra Orr

Creators News Service

Do they require special maintenance? How long will the battery last? Will I really save money?

Turns out, consumers still have plenty of questions about hybrids.

"Even though hybrids have been around for many years, people still have concerns about battery life, maintenance and fuel economy," Keith Buglewicz, road test editor for MyRide.com, said. "A bigger concern is the hybrid payback, which is how long it takes for the gas savings to offset the higher purchase price."

Drivers can expect to spend between $20,000 to $60,000 for that fuel-efficient ride. But if you hold on to your hybrid and maintain it well, it will prove to be a sound investment, according to "The Essential Hybrid Car Handbook: A Buyer's Guide" by Nick Yost ($14.95, The Lyons Press).

"If there has been one major sticking point among potential buyers, it has been price," Yost said. "Your decision should be based on your car usage and the price of gasoline. If you drive only a few thousand miles a year, a hybrid car may never make economic sense. But if you are a high-mileage driver you can save a significant amount of money, regardless of gas prices."

According to the editors at MyRide.com, the rate of savings varies widely among hybrids. For example, the payback on a Chevrolet Malibu Hybrid is more than seven years. Compare that to the Chevy Tahoe Hybrid, which starts saving money in just three years, and it's easy to see why consumers should do their research before making the investment.

"The extra cost of a hybrid is still significant in some cases, and the payback can take a long time -- and may not happen at all if you don't keep the car long enough," Buglewicz said. "Since fuel savings is a primary motivator behind hybrid purchases, knowing the payback is key to a buying decision."

To find out how each hybrid fares, visit the Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) Web site (www.fueleconomy.gov) for real-world fuel economy numbers, which can be significantly lower than the EPA estimates listed by the manufacturer.

No special maintenance required

Because the gasoline-engine components on hybrids are essentially the same as they've always been, drivers can expect the usual oil changes, tune-ups and routine maintenance.

"Maintenance isn't any worse than a regular car, and some theorize that because the gasoline engine isn't working as hard, maintenance on it may actually be lower," Buglewicz said.

And don't worry about the nickel metal hydride battery pack. It's built to last -- and fully recyclable.

"Battery life has, so far, not been a problem," Buglewicz said. "The earliest Toyota Prius and Honda Insight hybrids are still on the road with their original battery packs."

To ensure a long life, hybrid-specific batteries are designed to never fully charge nor fully discharge, according to Yost.

Automakers also offer extended warranties covering the battery from eight to 10 years.

Other hybrid-specific components, as explained on FuelEconomy.gov, include:

-- Regenerative Braking. During braking, the electric motor applies resistance to the drivetrain, causing the wheels to slow down. In return, the energy from the wheels turns the motor, which functions as a generator. The system converts that energy -- energy that is normally wasted during coasting and braking -- into electricity that's stored in the battery until needed.

-- Electric Motor Drive/Assist. The electric motor provides additional power to assist the engine in accelerating, passing or traversing hills. This allows manufacturers to use a smaller, more efficient engine. In some vehicles, the motor alone provides power for low-speed driving conditions where conventional internal combustion engines are the least efficient.

-- Automatic Start/Shutoff. The engine automatically shuts off when the vehicle comes to a stop and restarts again when the driver presses the accelerator. This prevents the vehicle from wasting energy while idling.

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