Electric Shock

By Tom Roebuck

August 21, 2009 5 min read

Buying a car is one of the biggest purchases most people make in their lives, so it's only natural to take the time to weigh your options carefully. The unlimited amount of choices that car buyers face can be overwhelming -- black or red, sedan or SUV, import or domestic, new or used, shop online or visit a car lot. Now another question has come up for potential car buyers: What about a hybrid?

The concept is simple, yet the results are significant. A hybrid has a gasoline engine just like you would find in any car, but it also has a battery-powered electric motor. There's no need to plug in the car to recharge the batteries -- the gasoline engine provides the power. Hybrids also generate electricity from the heat that comes from the brakes, a process called regenerative braking.

When the car is rolling along at slower speeds, typically up to 25 miles per hour, the electric motor does the driving without taking a sip from the gas tank. The motor turns itself off when the car comes to a stop, when a traditional car would sit idling, burning gas and fouling the air. As the car picks up speed, the gasoline engine begins to take over, the electric one shuts down and the batteries recharge.

This results in miles per gallon numbers previously unheard of. Hybrids average around 40 to 45 mpg, with some peaking around 50 during optimal driving conditions -- typically stop-and-go driving around a city when the car would be powered entirely by electricity.

Burning less fuel not only means spending less money, it also results in less exhaust fumes being released into the atmosphere.

"Buying a fuel-efficient vehicle is a great way to minimize your personal carbon footprint," said Jim Kliesch, a senior engineer with the Union of Concerned Scientists.

While saving money and polluting less should sound appealing to everyone, driving habits determine whether it makes sense to go hybrid. A driver that spends most of the time on the highway or long stretches of country roads wouldn't be a good candidate, since the electric motor would be off most of the time. The hybrid is a city slicker, ideal for drivers that encounter a lot of stop signs, red lights and traffic jams. Knowing that you're not burning gas when you're sitting in traffic makes an unpleasant experience a little less painful.

The first hybrid that arrived on the U.S. market was the Honda Insight, a small two-seater that had limited appeal to American drivers, who love their big cars and SUVs. It wasn't until Toyota unveiled the Prius and gas prices began to rise that drivers began to take notice. Unlike the Insight, the Prius is a sedan, with four seats and a larger trunk. Now on its third generation, Toyota's main hybrid dominates the market.

"They made the vehicle not only more fuel efficient, but slightly larger and slightly more powerful, letting the consumer have the cake and eat it too," Kliesch said.

Improving technology has also made the sticker price more comparable to a traditional car, according to Brian Moody, road test editor for Edmunds.com. "The price difference used to be significant, and now that cost has come down somewhat," he said.

Drivers considering a hybrid now have a larger selection to choose from. The Prius is king, but Honda still has the Insight, an inexpensive option that has recently been revamped. If driving performance is a major factor, the Toyota Camry is a step up. The electric motor is actually a little quicker, Moody said, and the switch to the gasoline engine is seamless. Lexus hybrids offer more comforts and accessories, like leather seats and a 14-speaker stereo.

Even drivers that don't want to give up their SUVs have an option, with the Chevy Tahoe and Cadillac Escalade the best-known SUV hybrids, according to Moody. They're too big to run on the electric motor only, but they offer better mileage than the traditional models.

"The Tahoe can get around 20 mpg, which is pretty good for the type of car that it is," Moody said.

Hybrids are an option to consider, but Moody said that it still pays to compare.

"There are several out there, but make sure that the price that's paid is not significantly more than what you could get a similar car for."

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