What is a hybrid car, and how does it work? We’ve got the answers

mercedes benz s class electric 2015 s500 plug in hybrid  2

When the first hybrid cars hit showrooms roughly two decades ago, they were dismissed as science projects. But now hybrid powertrains can be found in everything from high-end supercars, to humble taxis, and even in commercial vehicles.

As automakers continue to innovate and push towars more electrification with the ultimate goal of phasing out the internal-combustion engine, hybrids will likely become even more numerous over the next decade or so. But if you’re unsure as to what exactly a hybrid is and how it works, we’ve got the answers. And if you’re interested in buying one, we’ve got a few tips for picking the best hybrid car for you.

What is a hybrid car?

Ah, the most pertinent question of them all. Quite simply, a hybrid in the context of the automobile means that it’s motivated by both an electric motor and a traditional gasoline engine. The two systems work directly with each other to power the drive wheels.

The most obvious example of a hybrid vehicle is the Toyota Prius, which is the car that in 1997 started the mass-market hybrid economy vehicle trend that millions have come to enjoy. And the reason why hybrids are intensely popular is because they reduce one of the highest costs of ownership: fuel consumption.

what is a hybrid car 1997 toyota prius
Remember this guy? The 1997 Toyota Prius was the first mass-market hybrid vehicle. Toyota USA

Better fuel economy is the primary motivation behind hybridization. But more recently, automakers are noticing that hybridization benefits performance. We’ll get to that in a second …

In essence, a hybrid’s electric motor gets its juice from an on-board battery pack that usually sits in in the trunk behind the rear seats or in the floor pan to lower the center of gravity for improved handling.

When certain driving conditions favor the use of only the electric motor, such as driving below a certain speed or sitting at idle, the engine remains off and thus burns zero gasoline. When the battery level gets to a certain depletion level or if heavy throttle loads are required, the gasoline motor automatically kicks in to assist both in recharging the battery and propelling the drive wheels.

How do hybrids work?

In a conceptual nutshell, hybrid automobiles might all seem like they’re the same: they’re cars powered by both gasoline and electric power and geared toward saving fuel. That may be their main identifier. But there are variations in the designs and layouts of certain hybrids, depending on the type of vehicle and model. There are also different types of hybrid vehicles out there, though we’re focusing mainly on common consumer and commercial vehicle applications.

In a traditional hybrid, like a Toyota Prius, or even a larger Toyota Highlander Hybrid, to the likes of the Honda Accord Hybrid, Chevrolet Volt and Malibu Hybrid, and the Ford Fusion Hybrid — the gasoline engine is still the primary source of overall power for the vehicle. The electric motor also produces electricity by converting kinetic energy with regenerative braking. However, without the gas engine, the hybrid’s battery pack cannot recharge to supply the electric motor and some of the vehicle’s main functions. Thus, the car would basically become an terribly short-range and under-powered electric vehicle.

Supplementing the gasoline engine is an electric motor typically integrated into the transmission. It serves as the primary source of propulsion, whereas the gas engine is secondary. In the case of Toyota’s ubiquitous Hybrid Synergy Drive, a special “gearless” CVT (Continuously Variable Transmission) takes the place of the traditional gearbox and the electric motor is sort of sandwiched inside, consisting of a planetary gear set, a ring gear, pinion gears, a sun gear, and a planetary carrier.

2018 Hyundai Sonata Hybrid
The gauge cluster and instrumentation panel of a 2018 Hyundai Sonata Hybrid Hyundai

The electric motor then drives the wheels by sending power through the transmission whenever the throttle is depressed. In hybrids like the Prius or in a Chevrolet Volt, the electric motor acts solely to accelerate the car from a standstill. Once it goes over a certain speed or the gas pedal is pressed down to a certain degree, the gas engine then kicks in to assist the electric motor by sending more power through the CVT transmission, ultimately utilizing both to drive the wheels.

Controlling it all is a series of computers that automatically detect certain driving conditions and various parameters. Though with fuel economy as the primary goal, the computers prioritize the use of the electric motor over the gas engine for motivation.

More recently, manufacturers also began realizing that hybrids also benefit performance and thus,they have engineered various different types of hybrid vehicles. That’s because of the instant power delivery of electric motors, whereas internal combustion engines by contrast have to “spool up” before hitting their power peaks.

Examples include the supercar trifecta, the Porsche 918, the McLaren P1, and the LaFerrari. All three rely on a combination of an electric motor and gasoline engine for propulsion and power. However, they’re all built and designed rather differently, especially when compared to the traditional hybrid system found in a mass-market vehicle.

The Porsche 918 has twin-turbo V8 that sits in the middle of the chassis driving the rear wheels, but its electric motors are mounted at the front axle, providing the 918 with simulated all-wheel drive. The McLaren P1’s electric motor is integrated to the gas engine and mated to a dual-clutch transmission, while the LaFerrari’s hybrid capabilities involve a system initially developed for Formula 1 racing, also known as KERS, or kinetic energy recovery system.

But ultimately, they all rely on electricity and petrol for propulsion, thus giving them their hybrid status.

Another “different” type of gas-electric hybrid vehicle is the BMW i3 when equipped with its “range extender.” When equipped, it does use both gasoline and electricity since the range extender is a more traditional, but more technologically advanced internal-combustion engine. However, the i3 is technically an all-electric vehicle as it is available without its gas-powered range extender, rather than a hybrid. Additionally, with the i3, the electric motor is the primary source of propulsion. The gas engine, which is basically a two-cylinder unit lifted straight from one of BMW’s motorcycles, is there to help recharge the i3’s main lithium-ion battery. It does not in anyway send power to the drive wheels.

The BMW i8 however, is a more traditional hybrid with a 1.5-liter turbocharged gasoline engine, paired with an electric motor, which sends power to the rear wheels through a specially-designed six-speed automatic.

More recently, another term also began surfacing, adding itself to the list as a variant: the “mild-hybrid.” The term was coined to describe one of the industry’s latest innovations: the 48-volt electrical system. We experienced this new “mild-hybrid” in the all-new 2019 Ram 1500 eTorque, not too long ago. The 48-volt system is an additional electric supply that supplements the already standard 12-volt electrical supply used on vehicles. It also powers a new electric motor/generator combination module, or “EMG,” mounted outboard of an internal combustion engine and connected directly to the crankshaft pulley via a heavy-duty belt.

Said EMG acts as both a small electric motor that also doubles as an engine starter and an alternator. The EMG briefly cranks and drives the engine with electric power before the engine computer automatically transitions to all-gas power, providing hybrid-like benefits without the electric motor sending power directly through the transmission or axles. It also gets rid of the need to utilize a jerky and laggy automatic engine-stop-start function.

Why would you want a hybrid?

2018 Honda Accord
2018 Honda Accord Hybrid Engine

Ideally, if you’re interested in acquiring a hybrid vehicle, you want to save money on yearly gasoline and maintenance costs. Who doesn’t love paying as little at the pump as possible and going as far as possible between fill ups?

As with any car purchase, you need to consider your budget and needs and find a vehicle that fits them. Thanks to their popularity, there are many hybrid models of all shapes and sizes to choose from. Those wanting a regular car-based hybrid can spring for the Toyota Prius, the Hyundai Ioniq, and hybrid versions of various other models are available, too. If standard cars don’t entice you, there are hybrid crossover SUV options as well.

Some luxury automakers such as Lexus also produce hybrids. Other manufacturers of hybrid vehicles include Hyundai, Kia, Ford, Chevrolet, Honda, Audi, Mini, BMW, and many more.

2018 Toyota Highlander Hybrid Limited Platinum
2018 Toyota Highlander Hybrid Limited Platinum

But there are a few other things to think about when considering a hybrid. If you’re hoping that switching to a hybrid will help you contribute your part to saving the planet, unfortunately, you’ll be in for a bit of a surprise.

They do produce less CO2 than traditional petrol-powered vehicles throughout one’s ownership and use. But the battery manufacturing process was recently found to basically cancel out any environmental benefits of driving a hybrid vehicle because of the toxic and energy-intensive processes needed to mine the precious metals required for manufacturing the battery packs. Another issue is the disposal, storage, and recycling of those batteries and the emergence of pollution from battery waste sites.

So while some might save money on gas and produce less CO2 than a traditional gas vehicle, driving a hybrid unfortunately doesn’t quite help save the planet, which has industry analysts believing that we’re getting to a point of diminishing returns with automobile propulsion technology advances. That is, until there’s a revolutionary technological breakthrough that can solve the current challenges of internal combustion engines, electric motors, battery packs, or all of the above.

If reducing pollution is your primary concern, your more ideal solution might be an all-electric vehicle, or EV. A hybrid uses less gas than a conventional car, but an EV uses none at all. Currently, electric cars are still limited by range and lack of charging infrastructure. Not to mention, they still get their electricity from a fossil-fuel-dominated infrastructure. Additionally, battery and electric motor technology is still rather expensive and so thus, they’re not quite mass market for such vehicles just yet at the level of a traditional gas vehicle, let alone a practical option for everyone. If charging infrastructure is scarce, a hybrid may be the better option.

More recently, automakers have also been incorporating plug-in capabilities to current and future hybrid models, giving owners the flexible option to charge their vehicle’s battery packs by plugging into the nearest outlet or charging station.

To get the most out of a hybrid, you’ll also have to consider your driving style. Hybrids may boast much higher fuel economy figures on the window sticker, but they aren’t accurate if you’re constantly flooring the car at every stoplight. That’s because a hybrid’s ability to save fuel depends on the balance of internal-combustion and electric power, and that varies based on the design of the powertrain, and driving conditions. Because of this, hybrids tend to be ideal in stop-and-go city driving conditions, but not for highway cruising.

Finally, it’s important to note that not all hybrids are created equal. The “hybrid” label is an umbrella term that just identifies a vehicle as being propelled by two types of power supply, most typically, by a gasoline engine and electric motor.

Conclusion

A hybrid car can be a great way to save money on gas, provided you pick the right one and have a good idea of how it will be used before you buy. With so many hybrids on the market, and with more coming in the next few years, there is certainly no shortage of options.

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