Fuel For Thought

With more and more manufacturers bringing hybrids to market, it?s a good time to examine their pros and cons. What?s best for you? For the environment? For your wallet? We?ll help you find the answers, but first, a little background.
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Maybe you like to wait and see when it comes to technology. Rather than rush out to buy version 1.0 of a new gadget, you watch how the early adapters get on with things, wait for the company to fix bugs and make upgrades, and then you get onboard. Or maybe it took last year’s skyrocketing cost of gas to make you think seriously about a hybrid car. Either way, with more and more manufacturers bringing hybrids to market, it’s a good time to examine their pros and cons. What’s best for you? For the environment? For your wallet? We’ll help you find the answers, but first, a little background.

What Is a Hybrid?
“Some people still think hybrid cars are some sort of plug-in electric auto,” says Kate McLeod, car expert and author of the newspaper column GirlDriver, USA. “Absolutely not. Hybrids boast two power sources: a regular gasoline engine and an electric motor powered by a super battery.” These components generally work in tandem, though the exact mechanism varies depending on the car. “The Toyota Prius, for example, is considered a ‘full’ hybrid, running solely on electric power until you get up to around 20 miles per hour,” says McLeod.

“Then the gasoline engine takes over. At a stop, the gas engine shuts off. When you hit the accelerator, the electric motor turns on to get the car moving. Anytime you need extra power—say, when climbing a hill—the gas engine gets a boost from the electric motor. The electric motor basically recharges itself by capturing the heat energy generated as you brake. Hence, no plug.”

Hybrid cars increase gas mileage by essentially limiting how much they use the gas engine when accelerating, which is when the car burns the most fuel. This used to be the crux of a pretty simple equation for those interested in saving both money and the environment: Increase the number of miles per gallon of gas, and decrease the amount of gas you’ll use overall, which translates into spending less money and doing your part to keep pollution down. So, what’s changed?

Bigger, Not Better
That metaphorical rumble you hear is the mighty SUV. Hybrid SUVs, like the Toyota Highlander Hybrid or the Lexus RX 400h, work the same way as other hybrids, but they’re skewed in one extremely important area: size. “Part of the way you get good gas mileage with a hybrid is by having a small engine and a light car,” says McLeod. “As a rule, the heavier the car, the lower the mileage,” which is why hybrid SUVs don’t come close to hitting the magic number of 50 miles per gallon that smaller hybrids aim for. Instead, they get about 28 mpg.

Sure, that’s better mileage than a regular SUV, but you pay for it—hybrid SUVs cost around $6,000–$8,000 more. They’re not the only ones getting lower gas mileage. While no hybrid actually gets the maximum mpg (mileage tests are done in perfect conditions; in real life, weather, traffic and a heavy foot all affect mileage), some hybrids barely deliver any extra mpg.

Consider the Honda Accord. A May 2005 Consumer Reports article points out that the hybrid version gets 25 mpg, while the original Accord gets 23. So why pay up to $13,000 more for it? Performance. The electric motor adds power when speeding away from a stop.

The Bottom Line
So what, now, is the point of a hybrid car? “Go back a few years, and hybrids were a political statement,” says McLeod. “Owners were emotionally involved in the idea of these cars, seeing them as a solution to pollution, oil lust and global warming.” That part hasn’t changed, and the ranks of hybrids are growing.

McLeod reports that about 200,000 hybrids were sold in 2005, versus 9,350 five years ago. Keep in mind, though: “The only vehicles that are currently able to get very high gas mileage while simultaneously reducing both smog-forming emissions and global-warming emissions are hybrids, when they’re done right,” says Scott Nathanson, national field organizer for the Union of Concerned Scientist’s clean vehicles program.

The environmental dream is being muddied by what Nathanson calls “muscle hybrids”: hybrid SUVs and cars that use their electric motors to produce greater power, not better mileage. Plus their higher sticker prices will likely eat up any money saved at the pump. And don’t count on the government to make up the difference. Though the Energy Policy Act of 2005 included a new incentive plan that offers tax credits to hybrid buyers, the cash you’ll get won’t match the extra zeroes you’d shell out for a hybrid.

Furthermore, while hybrids seem to be extremely reliable cars, with potentially lower maintenance costs because the engine and brakes get less wear, they haven’t existed long enough to establish a baseline. Of particular concern are the battery packs, which, though designed to last from 150,000 to 200,000 miles, could cost as much as $3,000 to replace. Still, Toyota claims that not a single Prius battery has had to be replaced due to wear since the car hit Japan in 1997.

If doing your part for the environment is your top priority, there’s no question that buying a true hybrid is the way to go. Either the Toyota Prius or Honda Insight is still a great choice for reducing emissions and saving gas. But if you can’t manage the price, opt for a small gas-engine car that gets great gas mileage—for instance, the Honda Civic or Toyota Echo, both of which were on Edmunds.com’s list of the 10 most fuel-efficient cars of 2005. You won’t pay the premium price of a full hybrid or have to wait months to get your car, and you’ll get really decent gas mileage with a proven technology. It may be a compromise, but it’s a pretty good one.

Contributing editor Jordana Brown was thrilled to see her Toyota Matrix ranked among 2005’s most fuel-efficient cars.