Considerations - Hybrid Car

So you're considering a new vehicle, and checking out the hybrids. Or maybe you're just curious because you've heard so much about them.

Basically, a hybrid vehicle is about halfway between a traditional gasoline powered vehicle and an electric car.

It's actually pretty simple: Instead of hooking the engine up directly to the wheels, the engine is hooked up to a generator, which provides power for the electric motors that are also hooked up to the wheels.

An "electric car" is one that doesn't have any gasoline engine at all, and all power must be provided by batteries. The problems with these are:

The more battery power you have in an electric car, the farther you can go - but the more batteries you have, the heavier the car is, making it harder to go long distances.

With today's technology, gasoline is a better way of storing energy than batteries are, so rather than carrying around a thousand pounds of batteries, a hybrid has enough battery power to run the car under light to moderate loads, and a gasoline powered generator to provide additional electricity when needed.

The transmission in a hybrid is very different as well. The electric motors can run at the speed the vehicle needs to go and power from the gas engine is phased in as needed through a continuously variable transmission.

Check out this excellent US Government comparison of hybrid vehicles for some great information.

Energy Recovery

When you're stopping, your rotor or drum brakes are usually using friction to slow the vehicle, taking the forward energy of the vehicle and turning it into heat. With a hybrid, there's the potential to actually recover this energy - to use your brakes to put power back into the batteries. Gas powered vehicles achieve much lower fuel economy with city driving, but because of this ability to recover energy while braking, hybrids tend to do as well or better in the city (since driving is slower, there's less fuel wasted on air resistance).

2WD or 4WD

With a hybrid, providing 4WD isn't a job for the transmission - it's usually done by having additional electric motors for the rear wheels.

The nice thing about this is there isn't the complex differential that a 4WD system usually has, and when you're not using the 4WD (most vehicles can switch seamlessly between 2WD and 4WD), it's not causing reduced fuel efficiency.

Heating

Some hybrids can run for short distances without turning the gasoline engine on. In normal use, the gas engine can shut off, for example, when coasting, or when stopped at a traffic light.

But do you really want your heating and air conditioning going on and off like that? Probably not. Plus, the usual system of drawing heat from the engine and blowing it into the passenger compartment doesn't work because the engine might not be running enough to get hot.

So hybrids have electric appliances for heating - like having a space heater in your car.

Cost Savings

Are you considering a hybrid for it's green appeal (that it has much lower emissions than a standard vehicle), or for the cost savings that a hybrid promises?

If the former, then you're good to go - a hybrid is a good choice when it comes to the environment. But does the extra cost of a hybrid vehicle offset the fuel cost savings?

Not always. It's usually close, though, so this might not be a deciding factor. Check the specifications on the vehicles you're looking at, and compare them with the non-hybrid version of the same vehicle, and then look at the price difference.

Manufacturers

Your choice of vehicles is limited when you're shopping for a hybrid. There are no hybrid minivans available in North America, for example, and only a few manufacturers produce hybrid vehicles: Toyota, Honda, Ford, Chevrolet, GM, and Saturn.


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