After more than a century of gasoline-only cars dominating the landscape, drivers have come to understand the nuances of car performance and purchasing. Things like fuel economy, emissions levels and horsepower would seem overly technical and difficult to understand if they were new concepts, though. That's the story of electric and hybrid gas/electric cars, in a nutshell.
These cars use different technology and have different specs than traditionally fueled automobiles. These specs factor into performance and economy. If you're interested in buying a hybrid vehicle, it's important to know how they work and what you'll actually get for your money. Here are a few of the essential data points.
Everyone knows that hybrid vehicles run on a combination of electric and gasoline fuel, but what does that actually mean? The best way to think about hybrids is that they run primarily on electric power, but they tap into their gasoline supply for an extra boost. The important thing to remember is that the car won't dip into the gas supply all the time. The most common situations for gas consumption in a hybrid are when the car needs more power, like driving up a steep hill or hauling extra weight, as well as when the car needs to reach high speeds. When you're looking into your options for a hybrid purchase, find out what the vehicles electric-only speed is.
For the average hybrid compact or sedan, the electric-only speed can be as much as 65 mph. There are some performance-level hybrids that have been tested at speeds exceeding 100 mph electric-only, though. Consider what kind of driving you usually do to decide what kind of hybrid would suit your needs.
Generally speaking, hybrid vehicles aren't designed with performance car drivers in mind, especially when it comes to transmission control. Gas-only cars come in automatic and manual variations, the majority of hybrids are automatic transmission vehicles. Some varieties use what's known as “variable” transmission that responds on its own to natural input and road conditions. Instead, the main focus of hybrids is on fuel efficiency, so many models include dashboard meters that indicate electricity and gas usage in real time.
There are some manual transmission hybrids on the market, though. They tend to be in the coupe class for fans of luxury sport vehicles. These hybrid manuals tend to lack the pep of gas-only variations. The brake-based battery recharge systems in hybrids need to use the drivetrain for energy efficiency, so hybrid manual transmissions tend to focus on having extra control in situations like hilly or twisty roads, rather than getting more speed or power out of the vehicle at will.
The Truth About Fuel Economy
There's a bit of a catch to reported fuel economy in both gas-only and hybrid vehicles. Namely, the effect outdoor temperatures can have on energy efficiency. In short, cold weather will reduce your fuel economy no matter what you're driving. It has been a common barb lobbed at hybrids over the years that they perform poorly in colder climates, but the same is true of any vehicle that uses an engine.
Cold weather does not affect the transmission of electric energy or the potential energy within gasoline. Rather, low temperatures make it more difficult for the metal pieces of an engine to move. One way or another, the engine needs more energy to get started and maintain an ideal operating temperature. This means that hybrids need to use more electricity and often supplement with gas at ignition, but it also means that gas-only cars have to spend more fuel to do the same jobs when the weather is cold.
Long story short: Do your research about a vehicle's year-round fuel economy before you buy. Fuel efficiency as it exists in a lab setting or in a warmer climate won't tell you what it's going to cost to keep any kind of car running in the middle of the winter.
The Many Kinds of Hybrid
When someone says “hybrid car” there's usually one image that pops up: a small, strange-looking compact. The truth is that hybrid vehicles have come a long way in the past several years, expanding their technology to a wide variety of vehicle styles. You can still get that funky little compact, but there are plenty of other designs.
The aforementioned sporty hybrid coupes are definitely a different animal than the standard hybrid compact. There's also a growing SUV hybrid market, especially on the luxury end of the spectrum. For power-focused vehicles, the current trend is in “hybrid-assisted” trucks that tend to lack an electric-only mode, and instead use electric power to improve performance and save fuel during low-impact moments like idling, parked or just coasting.
Economy in Location
A lot of the factors mentioned above amount to hybrids being better overall performers for city driving. This isn't to say that hybrids can't or don't work well for highway or country situations, just that the city is the environment where hybrids really shine. The covered parking and clearer winter roads associated with city environments mean that hybrids won't have to deal with temperature and high-stress conditions that can impact fuel economy. The lower speed limits and shorter trips of city driving also allow hybrids to out-perform gas-only vehicles in miles per gallon ratings hands down. For highway driving, hybrids can also do well if they are structured to support long trip distances, also known as “range” for the electric-only system.
All in all, hybrid vehicles can be a great way to approach long-term savings in fuel costs while also minimizing your car's carbon emissions. Hybrids aren't perfect for every situation or every kind of driver, but they can be a great investment for people who need everyday transportation instead of sport or raw power. If you educate yourself about how hybrids work and what you can expect when the rubber hits on the road at any time of the year, you can find the hybrid that suits your needs and makes sure you'll be visiting the gas station once a month, rather than twice a week.
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