All About Hybrid Cars

A leading automotive tech expert provides the basics about how hybrid cars work and tells how to choose the best hybrid vehicle for your driving needs.

| GUIDE TO GREEN CARS, Summer 2012

  • Lexus CT 200h Luxury Hatchback
    The Lexus CT 200h luxury hatchback offers a sleek and earth-friendly package.
    LEXUS
  • Honda CR-Z Hybrid
    The Honda CR-Z hybrid offers eco-panache.
    PHOTO: HONDA
  • Camry Hybrid
    Toyota’s comfortable Camry Hybrid.
    TOYOTA
  • Buick LaCrosse with eAssist
    Buick’s LaCrosse with eAssist uses mild-hybrid technology.
    GENERAL MOTORS
  • Kia's Optima Hybrid
    Kia’s well-appointed Optima Hybrid.
    KIA
  • Ford Fusion Hybrid
    The new Ford Fusion Hybrid is expected to increase the vehicle’s mpg to about 47 in the city, 43 on the highway.
    TRANSTOCK
  • About Hybrid Cars
    Here’s how a gas engine, batteries and an electric motor work together to power a hybrid car.
    NATE SKOW
  • Volkswagen's Touareg Hybrid
    Volkswagen’s crossover Touareg Hybrid.
    VOLKSWAGEN
  • Hyundai Sonata Hybrid
    Hyundai Sonata Hybrid is a great-looking midsize sedan.
    TRANSTOCK
  • Toyota Prius Hybrid
    The Toyota Prius and its Hybrid Synergy Drive have evolved over multiple generations.
    TOYOTA
  • Honda CR-Z
    Even if it’s not a speed demon, the sporty-looking Honda CR-Z is a blast to drive.
    TRANSTOCK
  • Lexus RX 450h
    The Lexus RX 450h has become the most efficient SUV on the market at 30 mpg.
    TRANSTOCK
  • First Generation Prius
    The Prius was first introduced in Japan in 1997.
    TOYOTA
  • 2012 Prius V Station Wagon
    The 2012 Prius V station wagon.
    TOYOTA
  • Prius in the United States
    The Prius went on sale in the United States in 2000.
    TOYOTA
  • Compact Prius C
    The newly released compact Prius C is just right for urban driving and has the highest city mpg rating (53 mpg) of any car without a plug.
    TOYOTA
  • Second Generation Prius
    The second-generation Prius launched with the 2004 model.
    TOYOTA
  • Third Generation Prius
    The current, third-generation Prius model went on sale in 2009.
    TOYOTA
  • Hybrid Cars in 1979
    MOTHER EARTH NEWS first wrote about hybrid cars back in 1979.
    MOTHER EARTH NEWS STAFF

  • Lexus CT 200h Luxury Hatchback
  • Honda CR-Z Hybrid
  • Camry Hybrid
  • Buick LaCrosse with eAssist
  • Kia's Optima Hybrid
  • Ford Fusion Hybrid
  • About Hybrid Cars
  • Volkswagen's Touareg Hybrid
  • Hyundai Sonata Hybrid
  • Toyota Prius Hybrid
  • Honda CR-Z
  • Lexus RX 450h
  • First Generation Prius
  • 2012 Prius V Station Wagon
  • Prius in the United States
  • Compact Prius C
  • Second Generation Prius
  • Third Generation Prius
  • Hybrid Cars in 1979

More than a dozen years after the first hybrid cars arrived in the United States, shoppers now can choose among 33 different gasoline-electric hybrid vehicles from every major automaker, with more to come. The best of these high-mpg cars offer a compelling combination of features: high fuel efficiency, long-term affordability and long driving range. The technology of these fuel-efficient cars is proven and here to stay, with more than 2.1 million hybrids on U.S. roads. Though that represents only about 1 percent of all our vehicles, it’s the first “green” alternative that has reached this level of adoption.

Hybrids have become so common — in California, the Toyota Prius outsells the longtime best-selling gasoline-powered Camry family sedan — it’s easy to forget the drastic measures previous generations took to get phenomenal gas mileage.

For example, there was the Arkansas man in the late 1970s who ripped out the gas engine of his Opel GT coupe and replaced it with an electric motor, 5-horsepower lawn mower engine and four 12-volt batteries. When he was finished, David Arthurs had a homemade hybrid car that could go 75 miles on just 1 gallon of gasoline. He published his blueprints in the July/August 1979 issue of MOTHER EARTH NEWS. (Go to Electric Car Conversion: The Amazing 75-MPG Hybrid Car to read the original article.)

For the adventurous DIY crowd, the mileage was great, but reliability and durability were another matter. The level of sophistication and computerization of today’s hybrids is a far cry from Arthurs’ lawn mower hybrid, but the basic idea of a hybrid hasn’t changed. In fact, the inner workings of the first known hybrid — produced in 1898 by then unknown 23-year-old engineer Ferdinand Porsche — were similar to today’s systems. Instead of solely relying on a gasoline internal-combustion engine to power the wheels, an electric motor and batteries are also called into service — especially during moments when either pure electricity or a gasoline-electric combo can maximize efficiency.



How Hybrids Work

The availability of the electric motor for propulsion enables the hybrid to burn less gasoline. Today’s hybrids — the ones that don’t plug in — use sophisticated onboard computers to decide which source of power to use when, and how much and when to blend the two.

Toyota’s hybrids, the Ford Fusion and several others on the market are considered full hybrids, meaning that the vehicles can drive at low speeds solely using electric power. Most full hybrid systems have two electric motors — one to supply traction to the wheels, and the other to turn the gas engine on and off smoothly. On the other hand, a “mild” hybrid — most notably the single-motor system from Honda — can move from a standstill only if the internal-combustion engine is engaged. It uses the electric motor primarily to assist the gas engine to improve efficiency. Some of the newer hybrid systems — from Hyundai and Volkswagen, for example — have only one motor, but use a clutch to automatically disengage the gas engine so only the electric motor moves the wheels at low speeds.

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