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Hybrids: The Real Deal or Marketing Hype

Are Hybrids Really Worth the Money?


2008 Toyota Prius Touring Edition left front view

Toyota Prius 2nd generation

© Adrian Gable

Hybrids have been available to the car buying public for more than ten years. It all started when Toyota released the first generation Prius to the Japanese market in 1997, and hybrids have morphed into different forms ever since. We have full hybrids, mild hybrids, two-mode hybrids and the much-anticipated plug-in hybrids. And maybe not too far into the future will come flywheel hybrids.

But is hybrid technology—and the accompanying price premium (anywhere from about $2,000 to well over $10,000)—just pulling the wool over our eyes? In our increasingly complicated modern world, are hybrids just one more stepping stone on the way to techno overload? Could they be just another way that money-hungry automobile manufacturers have found to deposit more of our monthly paycheck into their pockets?

Gasoline or Hybrid? There are indeed instances where regular fuel-injected gasoline engines actually offer clean emissions and excellent fuel mileage without the complicated battery and motor apparatuses that comprise hybrids. Case in point: When all else is equal and a small economy car fits your needs and budget, choose an efficient 4-cylinder model and utilize smart fuel-saving strategies. That's not only easier on the earth and your fuel budget, it nixes that hybrid premium.

However, hybrid packages really strut their stuff in applications where the electric motor supplies substantial power—enough to propel the vehicle under very light load and speed or provide a healthy boost to an efficient, but down-sized, internal combustion engine. These are the cases where a particular vehicle may ordinarily have X sized engine, but the addition of a hybrid package allows for a smaller Y sized engine with the idea that the electric motor and battery would carry a significant portion of the load.

Under these conditions, the total emissions and fuel consumed per mile does drop considerably compared to an engine-only version of the same vehicle. While some manufacturers have put hybrid packages in otherwise light and efficient cars with no real engine redesign (resulting in minimal return on investment), there are models that do give serious bang-for-the-buck. Let’s take a closer look at the most popular and successful hybrid to date, the Toyota Prius.

A Closer Look at the Prius. The miserly little second generation Prius has a fairly large electric motor (rated at 67 horsepower) that allows the car to get by with a relatively small 1.5-liter gasoline engine (rated at 76 horsepower). That small, thrifty engine blesses the Prius with exceptional fuel mileage—but that would be false economy if that engine had to perform alone, carrying the entire load in real world traffic. Enter the powerful little electric motor that consumes no gasoline and emits no emissions that assists in propelling the car—and yes, under light load, low speed conditions, it also powers the car independently. Furthermore, most of the energy required to run the motor is supplied by regenerative braking. It takes energy that would be lost as dissipated heat (a by-product of friction) during regular braking and turns it into free, useful power. The remaining amount of battery charging power is produced during light criusing. It is precisely this balance of gasoline engine and electric motor that lets the Prius attain nearly 50 mpg while still achieving practical locomotion.

What About Diesels? Diesels could be a different story. Modern clean diesel vehicles--with all of their accompanying emissions equipment (SCR, DPFs and OxyCats) can cost $5,000 or more than the same model car with a gasoline engine. And while they get upwards of 25 percent better fuel economy, that diesel package will take many miles and a longer term of ownership to bring the additional outlay into the black. Expensive? Yes. Long-lasting and durable? Yes. It may take some time, but once the upfront costs of diesels are cleared, they have proven to live a long and economical life. Their biggest drawback? Selection (at least in North America). Unless it's a truck or an SUV, the choices are very limited.

So What’s the Best Choice? Even if a case could be made that every conventional hybrid is an inefficient way to cut emissions, the continuing development of the technology is leading the way to plug-in hybrids that are truly zero emissions vehicles during most of their operating time. Fold renewable energy (wind and solar power) into the equation to supply those electrons during their plug-in recharge time and we see win-win, not hype-hype.

But whether you buy into the battery-motor-engine concept or not, every hybrid on the road today is already saving fuel and slashing emissions. And that’s another step in the right direction—a direction that involves many different parts, people and technologies. There isn’t one right way or one huge answer that’s going to get us out of the hole we’re in. It’s going to take continued commitment, dedication to efficiency and passion to keep us on the path to a cleaner and sustainable energy future.

Prove it to yourself. Dally over to www.fueleconomy.gov and punch in a few numbers to compare fuel savings and greenhouse gas emissions on hybrids vs. conventional cars. Check model for model, and make sure to compare the difference between the hybrid versus conventional version. And while you're at it, compare diesels too. Still not satisfied? Check out our reviews and test drives where we do cost/benefit and payback comparisons.

“We have not inherited the Earth from our fathers. We are borrowing it from our children.” --Native American Saying

Daily choice does make a difference. What’s yours going to be?

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