EV - Electric Vehicles, Fuel Economy, Road Test Special, Vehicle Acquisition

Hybrid Vehicles – How Do They Work And Should I Buy One? – Road Test Special

~ 2011 Honda CR-Z hybrid

In 2006 I had the opportunity to Road Test my first two hybrid vehicles – the Ford Escape and the Toyota Camry. I wasn’t sure what to expect, other than good gas mileage and a very quiet engine. That was a long time ago and hybrids have come a long way since then with numerous manufacturers throwing their hat into the fuel-savings ring.

Each time I get the opportunity to drive a hybrid, my main goal is to learn if they actually sipped fuel as promised, or whether all the hype is just another game of smoke and mirrors that tree huggers have become so adept at feeding the general public by way of the media. I always get numerous questions come my way from friends, family and complete strangers. Most are somewhat confused about what exactly a hybrid is, and that got me to thinking – how many other people are confused about them? So, with my readers in mind, here is a brief explanation and summary of my experience with hybrids – the good and the bad – if there is any.

Does it need to be plugged in?
No, a hybrid is a combination of an electric motor and a gasoline engine (sometimes a diesel is used). An electric-only vehicle has to be plugged in and therefore has a very limited range. Batteries don’t work very well in the cold and can cut the maximum range in half, so they’re only of use in hot sunny areas like California, Arizona, Texas etc. These dilemmas with electric-only vehicles are exactly why manufacturers developed hybrids. The hybrid basically recharges itself – the electric motor captures energy from the engine and braking system, stores it in the battery which then powers the electric motor.

There are electric plug-in vehicles available, but they are very expensive and have a very limited range of up to 100 kilometers per charge… they are NOT hybrids.

How does a hybrid work?
There are different types of gasoline/electric hybrids, but the current models use a small gasoline engine (usually a 4-cylinder) combined with an electric motor and a rechargeable battery. Depending on the vehicle, the electric motor can run the car by itself for short periods. Hybrids have an “idle-stop” feature that shuts off the gasoline engine entirely when the car is idling, such as at a traffic light or in a traffic jam. Electric motors are all about torque, they provide all their power at much lower engine speeds, so usually the electric motor is used to get the vehicle going from a stop and then the gasoline engine takes over as the speed increases. The gasoline engine works just the same as it does in a conventional vehicle, and can switch on and off automatically in combination with the electric motor.

Does the engine shut off every time you stop?
Yes and No.

YES – For most hybrids, it switches off if the outside temperature is above freezing and the battery is fully charged. The vehicle doesn’t shut down entirely – the heater, lights, stereo, air conditioning (set at low), and power accessories like windows and locks still work – but if they’re all switched off, all you hear is silence. The vehicle is restarted automatically by the electric motor – just press the gas pedal. The huge benefit is that no matter how long you’re stuck in traffic, you’re not wasting fuel.

NO – If you switch the rear window defroster on, or have the air conditioning set to maximum then the engine operates the vehicle 100% of the time. On the highway, the convention engine is employed due to the fact that the electric motor only works at low speeds.

Do I need to switch the car from gasoline to electricity?
No. The vehicle does this automatically and without intervention – the switch is virtually seamless, so you’ll only know if you look at the gauges. You have no option on this and cannot decide to use one or the other – the vehicle decides on the most advantageous time to use gasoline, electricity, or a combination of both.

When do I need to replace the battery, and how much will it cost?
Current hybrids have a manufacturer’s warranty on the battery for 5 – 8 years, and/or 130,000 – 160,000 kms. They’re designed to last a long time because the battery is always in its optimal range. Unlike a cell phone battery that is drained and then recharged, a hybrid’s battery is kept at a constant level. Toyota reports that it has not had a single battery pack returned since it sold its first hybrids here in North America back in 1999, and that if a battery pack should need replacing out of warranty it will be approximately the same price as a transaxle, or about $3,500.

What vehicles are available as a hybrid?
The first hybrids were small cars like the Honda Insight and Toyota Prius, however, technology has advanced to meet customer’s needs to the point that there is very little – if any – compromises between a regular gasoline engine vehicle and a hybrid, and that means we have more options and more manufacturers building them.

Why do they use CVT transmissions?
Many hybrids use a CVT transmission (Continuously Variable Transmission). A CVT uses cone-shaped pulleys with a belt between them instead of using the traditional stepped gears. This allows for an infinite number of ratios between the highest and lowest gears (there are no gears) and keeps the engine in its most efficient range – which increases fuel economy. Since hybrids are all about saving fuel, it only makes sense to mate them to a transmission that helps cut down on fuel consumption.

~ 2012 Ford Focus Electric – Not a hybrid

Do the hybrids cost more to insure than a conventional vehicle?
Probably not. Check with various on-line insurance services to get an idea in you part of the country. News Canada did a comparison at http://www.kanetix.ca and found nothing outstanding in comparing hybrids to gasoline vehicles – “the cost to insure a hybrid vehicle was neither consistently higher nor lower.”

They sound great! Which one should I get?
You need to assess YOUR needs before you buy a hybrid. A lot depends on your driving needs and you may or may not decide that a hybrid is your best option. Under optimal conditions hybrids deliver their best fuel mileage in stop and go traffic or city traffic. Unlike conventional vehicles, hybrids actually get better mileage in the city than they do on the highway. If you do a lot of highway driving, wear diving boots for footwear, or don’t spend much time in stop and go traffic, you may not realize the full benefits of a hybrid. However, that being said, with continually rising gas prices, a hybrid may in the long run be a very wise decision.

You must adapt your driving habits to a hybrid – easy on the gas when leaving the lights, braking sooner is actually better because you’re recharging the battery. Going uphill is bad – going downhill using the brakes is good. Idling outside the bank is good, using it as a getaway vehicle and running from the cops is bad – you get the idea.

Hybrids in general cost more to buy, but that can be overcome in the fuel you save – maybe. Depending on the price of gasoline and how far you drive, it may be many years before you “break even” over the cost of a conventional model – if ever. (However, we are seeing more reasonable prices for hybrid vehicles these days, and they’re certainly coming into reach for more people). You don’t need to be a tree-hugger to buy one. The price of gas is going to continue to rise, so if you purchase vehicles for the long-haul it might be a wise decision. A past report on the price difference between a hybrid Honda Civic and a regular Civic, negated any savings until year 8 of ownership – assuming you drive more than 20,000 kms per year. Sit down and do your calculations before signing on the dotted line. Buying a diesel engine car may be a better option and some new vehicles from Hyundai and Kia sip so little fuel it doesn’t make sense to even consider a hybrid.

Another perk to account for when considering a hybrid is government rebates. While the Canadian Government is currently not offering any incentives in the foreseeable future, the U.S. Government is offering Energy Tax Credits for Electric Plug-ins only ($7,500).  For more information on these programs visit: (USA) http://www.fueleconomy.gov/feg/taxphevb.shtml

~ Toyota Prius

As mentioned at the outset, I’ve had the opportunity to drive several hybrids over the past 6 years and I’ve always come away very impressed. The Toyota Camry was outstanding in its fuel economy, getting 6.78 L/100 km on a constant basis. The Ford Escape was good for an SUV at 9.5 L/100 km which was worse than the EPA’s ratings, but very close to the V-6 thereby negating any fuel advantage it was supposed to have. It also cost considerably more than a regular Escape, but the Camry was within hundreds of dollars of a similar V-6 model. Neither vehicle compromised anything when compared to its regular gasoline powered stable mate. I’ve driven various car and SUV/CUV hybrids with similar results.

In Conclusion, have a look at this report from BCAA…

July 2010 – British Columbia Automobile Association’s (BCAA), annual Hybrid Cost and Savings

Twelve years after Honda introduced the first gas-electric hybrid vehicle into the mass North American market, car buyers have yet to see the kinds of price reductions that were predicted to occur.

According to the British Columbia Automobile Association’s (BCAA), annual Hybrid Cost and Savings analysis conducted in July 2010, several models come close to their conventional cousins when costs are compared over five years, but only one – the $105,000 Mercedes S400 Hybrid sedan – is less expensive to own and operate compared to its conventional equivalent.

BCAA’s study placed 16 hybrid models available in B.C. and their conventional equivalents side-by-side and compared the purchase, financing and fuel costs over a five year period. The analysis assumes a constant gas price of $1.17 per litre and a driving distance of 20,000 kms a year.

Over a five year period, the hybrids that are the cheapest to own and operate are the Honda Insight ($38,326), Toyota Prius ($40,324) and the no longer available- Honda Civic Hybrid ($42,664).

Notes and assumptions:
*Total 5-year cost includes initial purchase price, financing and fuel costs at $1.17 per litre, less applicable tax rebates (no longer available).
*Does not include maintenance or insurance costs.
*Annual driving distance is 20,000 kilometres.
*Long-term depreciation and resale values remain unknown so are assumed to be neutral.
*The Toyota Matrix/Prius comparison was used due to similar design and specifications.
*MSRP and PDI information obtained from CanadianDriver.com or direct from manufacturers.
*Financing rates assumed to be the same on both vehicles.
*Monthly payment calculated using Loan Payment Calculator on Coast Capital Savings website.
*Fuel consumption data from National Resources Canada – 2009 Fuel Consumption Guide or direct from manufacturers.

Copyright © 2012 by Iain Shankland. All rights reserved.
Text: Iain Shankland / Images: Honda, Toyota & Ford

Also Published at: Flagworld.com