Excerpted from Take the Wheel: A Woman’s Guide to Buying a Car Her Own Damn Self by Kristen Hall-Geisler—new and improved and out November 2017!
It may surprise you—or it may not, given the ubiquity of the Toyota Prius—to know that hybrids have been on sale in the United States since 1999. I’m sure when Prince wrote about partying like it was 1999, he never imagined he would do it using an electric-gasoline hybrid system. He was, of course, imagining little red Corvettes. I didn’t have to tell you that.
Everyone has heard of hybrids by now, and most people know that they involve electricity. But even a decade later, these cars still have an aura of mystery. What exactly is going on under that hood?
Well, there’s the first sticking point. It’s only partly going on under the hood. Like many of us, hybrids got it going on in the trunk too. Hybrids have two sources of power: a gasoline-powered engine and an electric-powered motor. The engine is a combustion engine like the engines found in most vehicles on the road. Hybrid engines are engineered to save fuel in a way that sacrifices power at low speeds. But that’s okay! Low speeds are where the motor kicks ass.
Electric motors have “all torque, all the time,” as the electric car nerds like to put it. Torque is that awesome feeling of being thrown back in your seat when you stomp on the accelerator. A combustion engine takes a couple of seconds to reach maximum torque. In an electric motor, that happens nearly instantaneously when you hit the accelerator, like flicking a light switch. The problem for electric motors is that it’s hard for them to keep up that kind of ass kicking. They run out of juice.
In a hybrid like the Prius, these two power sources, like ebony and ivory, work together in perfect harmony. I swear the ’80s music references are not intentional, but there they are. You can drive the car up to a certain speed, say 40 mph or so depending on the car, for a few miles if you’re careful, before the gasoline engine starts up and takes over. Then the motor just helps out a little while the engine does most of the work.
In some older styles of hybrids, the motor and engine always worked together at the same time. You couldn’t drive these cars on electric power only, but the motor did help the engine with both torque and fuel savings.
There’s no plug required in a normal hybrid. Like other electrified cars, hybrids have regenerative brakes, which means that they can capture the energy lost in the effort to stop the car and channel it back to the batteries. That energy is usually lost as heat that radiates out into the air, but this braking system is able to hold onto and use it before it has a chance to escape.
Who Gets the Biggest Bang for This Buck?
Since the motor takes on an assisting role at highway speeds, leaving the 75-mph, horsepower-heavy work to the gasoline engine, hybrids get better mileage in town than on the highway. This seems counterintuitive to anyone born before the 1990s, much like my penchant for referencing ’80s pop songs, but check out the Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) ratings for hybrids and you’ll see the mileage distinction. You can find those ratings at FuelEconomy.gov or on any window sticker on the lot.
These cars not only work well for commuting city types, they also fill a hole in the environmental hearts of American heartlanders. There are lots of people in the middle of the country who would love to have a tiny electric car that runs on butterfly kisses and emits only rainbows, but their morning commutes involve long stretches on lonely highways in giant, empty states when the temperature is thirty below. They may love the earth, but they are not stupid. They are practical. A hybrid can be an easy compromise for those folks.
A hybrid is not going to get early adopters’ motors running. If you have ever waited in line for an iPhone, or if you are a serial beta tester for apps, a hybrid is not going to be nearly exciting enough for you. However, if you’re still unsure about all this electric car folderol, a hybrid is a stable, proven technology with millions of miles on all those odometers since 1999. Maintenance records are available, used vehicles are out there, and the price of new vehicles is no longer so far above a non-hybrid version that you might as well buy two cars.
Is It Really Green?
Hybrids are light green, like a Granny Smith apple—they’re both easy to find, easy to like, and versatile. You can eat them out of hand or put them in a pie. Whether it’s a full hybrid that can run on battery power for a bit or a mild hybrid that gets a boost from the motor, these cars usually get better mileage than a gasoline-only vehicle.