GreenCars 101

Hybrid Car Overview

Laurance Yap
Jul 2023
What is a hybrid car? At its most basic, a hybrid car combines two different kinds of power sources - in most cases, a gasoline engine and an electric motor. Read on to learn more about how hybrids work.
Toyota Hybrid driving down highway

Hybrid Car Overview

The term “hybrid” refers to a vehicle that combines electric power with another form of power – usually a gasoline engine – to offer improved fuel efficiency and performance. In the context of doing our part for the environment, hybrid cars use fewer fossil fuels and reduce greenhouse gas emissions versus a comparably powerful gas vehicle.

While the first prototype hybrid cars were introduced over a hundred years ago, it was really the Honda Insight and Toyota Prius that ushered in the modern hybrid era at the end of the 1990s. The Insight was a tiny, teardrop-shaped two-seater with an electric motor and three-cylinder engine; super economical and innovative, but it did not sell in big numbers. The Prius, on the other hand, was a practical four-door sedan – and quickly became popular among many environmentalists and eco-minded celebrities. Hybrid sales have continued to grow ever since, and automakers such as Toyota, Kia, Honda, Ford, Hyundai and others have built hybrid variations of their most popular models. 

There are two major types of hybrid cars that use a combination of electric power and gasoline. One is a “conventional” hybrid vehicle, often referred to as a hybrid electric vehicle (HEV). The other is a plug-in hybrid electric vehicle (PHEV). The difference between an HEV and PHEV is that a PHEV can be plugged in to recharge its battery – and can generally drive further on electric power.

Plug-in hybrids are typically heavier, more complex, and more expensive than their hybrid counterparts, and we have dedicated an entire section to them here on the GreenCars website.

Hybrid car and it's engine

How Do Hybrids Work?

If you open the hood of a hybrid car, you’ll see that it looks a lot like a gasoline-powered car – because in many ways, it is! You’ll see an engine, a transmission, a timing belt, and other familiar mechanical parts.  

But you’ll notice that the engine in a hybrid car might be smaller than usual, taking up less space. A hybrid car supplements the gasoline engine’s output with a battery and electric motor. Sometimes, the electric motor is integrated into the housing of the transmission; sometimes it’s contained in its own housing or connected to a different axle.  

In both cases, the electric motor, or motors, reduce the need for a larger gasoline engine. Electric motors are compact, simple, and powerful: with just one moving part, they can produce a lot of torque, which supplements what comes from the gasoline engine.

Away from the engine compartment, hybrids have a battery pack. This hybrid battery pack is separate from the 12-volt auxiliary battery, which serves the same purpose as it does in a conventional gasoline car —  powering accessory systems like the radio, power windows, and such while the motor isn’t running.

The hybrid battery, sometimes called the traction battery, is what gives a hybrid car improved fuel economy and acceleration – including the power required to drive the car at low speed on electric power alone. The hybrid battery is typically composed of nickel-metal hydride (NiMH) or lithium-ion (LiON) batteries stacked together and located near the rear axle so that, in the case of a collision, the battery is well-protected.

A hybrid car charges its battery using something called “regenerative braking.” When slowing down, the electric motor turns into a generator and charges the battery, re-capturing energy that would have otherwise been wasted.  

Depending on the individual model, a hybrid vehicle can reduce fuel consumption and CO2 emissions by up to 35% – a significant improvement.

For more details on hybrid batteries, how they charge, and more, click here.

couple driving car

Why Buy a Hybrid?

Is a hybrid car right for you? It really depends on your driving habits. If you do a lot of short trips in urban traffic, an electric car or plug-in hybrid offers biggest improvement in fuel consumption and tailpipe emissions.

But, if you do a lot of highway driving, or frequently do longer trips, a hybrid vehicle could be a better fit. Its smaller battery is lighter, improving highway fuel efficiency compared to EVs and PHEVs. And in the city, while a hybrid won’t eliminate gasoline consumption completely like an all-electric vehicle, it will still provide substantial fuel savings.

A hybrid can save you a lot of money over time. Though it might be a little more expensive to buy upfront, when you look at total cost of ownership, the savings on fuel can add up over time. Vehicles like the Hyundai Ioniq Hybrid, Honda Insight, and Toyota Prius all score over 50 mpg according to the EPA’s estimates.

Hybrid technology is also available in a wide variety of vehicle types these days. For instance, there are a number of hybrid SUVs on the market – from the compact Subaru Crosstrek to the seven-seater Toyota Highlander to the luxurious Volvo XC90 to the rugged Ford Explorer. Going green doesn’t mean giving up space, versatility, or off-road ability.

Couple in woods with RAV4 parked

Are Hybrids More Expensive?

It’s true that you will pay slightly more for a hybrid car than you will for a conventional gas-powered car up-front. But the price difference is narrowing with every passing year as batteries get cheaper and more common.

From a maintenance and reliability perspective, hybrids will have similar maintenance costs to gasoline vehicles as they still have engines that require oil changes, coolant replacements, spark plugs, and such. Brake pads may last quite a bit longer as regenerative braking does so much of the stopping in hybrid cars. On the other hand, tires might need more frequent replacement as hybrid cars tend to be heavier than their gasoline counterparts.

There can be slightly increased costs when maintenance involves the battery, oxygen sensors or evaporative emissions systems that are not working properly. While these issues are not common occurrences, it is important to note that the added complexity of a hybrid system can require a more specialized technician and, as a result, can increase the cost for some repairs outside of warranty.

On the other hand, hybrid cars’ superior fuel efficiency will likely make them more economical to own over time.

Front view of a Tesla Model 3 driving through canyon roads

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