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Hybrid Cars Pros and Cons

Generally, and for the purposes of this guide, we will refer to hybrid cars in their most common form – HEVs.

How do hybrid cars work?

Hybrids have existed in various forms for years – the moped is one of the most common examples as it combines a petroleum engine with pedal power. Many locomotives also utilise both diesel and electric power, so the examples of hybrid vehicles are far and wide.

However, hybrid cars have been developed with the purpose of reducing carbon dioxide emissions in cars. Here, three types have emerged – series hybrids, parallel hybrids and plug-in hybrids:

  • Series hybrids – Utilise a combustion engine which generates electricity and powers an electric motor.
  • Parallel hybrids – Where the wheels are powered by the engine or by the battery-powered electric drivetrain.
  • Plug-in hybrid electric vehicles (PHEVs) – A petrol-electric hybrid with a battery pack that can be recharged.

In series and parallel hybrids, when the engine loading is low, energy is stored for later use – and when more energy is required, such as during acceleration, the storage device and main engine combine to provide the power that’s needed. By using energy in this way, hybrids are more economical and better for the environment.

Generally, hybrid cars are assisted by regenerative braking. This captures the kinetic energy and prolongs the charge of batteries. This effective top-up system for the batteries can reduce overall fuel consumption by 20 per cent. Read on for more about regenerative braking.

Plug-in hybrids run on battery power for the first 10-60 miles (16-100km) with the petrol engine used when faster acceleration is required. They are considered a good alternative to electric cars which have a limited range because plug-in hybrids revert to the petrol engine when the battery is nearly discharged – or you can go to a charging station.

Most hybrid cars are able to operate in electric mode – with zero emissions – when travelling at low speeds (for example, below 15mph). This means that they are considered ideal for urban driving.

What are the advantages of hybrid cars?

There are two primary reasons why hybrid cars have been introduced to the market – to assist the environment by reducing emissions and to cut motoring costs by reducing the reliance on oil. With more than 700million vehicles worldwide it is believed that if more consumers buy hybrid vehicles it will force car manufacturers to take a greener approach to manufacturing.

As they combine electric power with conventional burning of petroleum, harmful emissions are reduced and so is global warming. On European roads it has been estimated that petrol-hybrids can cut greenhouse gas emissions by around 25 per cent per mile. In the case of a vehicle such as the Honda Insight, which has CO2 emissions below 80g/km, lifecycle carbon emissions are actually slashed to half those of a traditional conventional car.

Indeed hybrid cars are advantageous in their reduction of all harmful emissions. Hydrocarbons, carbon monoxide and nitrogen oxides can be reduced by as much as 90 per cent.

Whether you have an environmental conscious or not, hybrid cars appeal to anyone who wants to save money – with statistics in the USA showing that the Toyota Prius can achieve approximately 60 miles to the gallon, doubling what is achievable in a conventional vehicle. With fuel prices reaching 120p/litre in the UK and $4/gallon in the USA, there are huge savings to be made over the lifetime of the vehicle.

Another advantage hybrid cars have is that they are ahead of other green car alternatives. Though electric cars, cars using biofuels, and vehicles powered by hydrogen fuel cells are emerging and may even be ‘greener’ than hybrids in the long term, they are all flawed in some way. Electric cars currently have limited range, biofuels are controversial because of the way they are produced and hydrogen fuel cells are a currently limited technology yet to be mass-produced. By comparison, hybrid cars are ‘ready to go’ in that they meet the demand of today’s society without compromise. They will also always be ahead of conventional cars in that no matter how low future emission standards may be a hybridised engine will always out-perform a conventional engine.

What are the disadvantages of hybrid cars?

There are a handful of disadvantages to hybrid cars. Though hybrids clearly reduce emissions greatly, they are less useful over continuous high speed driving, such as on a motorway where emission levels will increase. Indeed though electrics and hydrogen fuel cells are yet to be mass produced and break out into the mainstream in the manner that hybrid cars have achieved, it’s clear that they offer a stronger environmental solution should their issues be resolved.

There are also concerns over the environmental impact of the hybrid car battery which is usually made from either nickel metal hydride or lithium ion. Both are considered more environmentally friendly than lead batteries, but nickel-based batteries are known as carcinogens and there are concerns about the health problems they can cause though this is still the subject of much research.

Furthermore, there are concerns about a raw material shortage of dysprosium which is required to fabricate many of the advanced electric motors and battery systems. Some analysts predict a shortage by 2012 although a few new sources are being developed.

Plug-in hybrids also face issues of their own in that a good, cheap battery pack is required. If everyone plugged into the utility grid at the same time the combustion problems caused by petrol and diesel cars would simply be displaced by the surge in use of generally coal-powered electric generating plants. Therefore it is hoped that cars can be charged late at night to create more efficiency and that initial generation can be made from renewable sources such as wind, hydro and tide power.

However, perhaps the biggest issue with hybrid cars is that they are generally more expensive than conventional cars and the initial retail price can be off-putting. Though money can be saved over the lifetime of the vehicle, a large initial outlay is still required and this puts hybrids out of reach for many drivers.

Why have hybrid cars earned celebrity status?

Hybrid cars are sometimes referred to as the ‘car of the stars’ thanks to their incredible popularity in Hollywood. Cameron Diaz was the first to publicly announce her support of the vehicles and regularly drives a Toyota Prius. Indeed many A-list celebrities have followed her lead including Tom Hanks, Jack Black, Larry David, Harrison Ford, Woody Harrelson and Kurt Russell. Leonardo Di Caprio was also famously quoted as saying that his hybrid car is just like any other vehicle except that he only has to fill it up once every three weeks.

What is it like to own a hybrid car? How much do hybrid cars cost?

As mentioned in the ‘disadvantages of hybrid cars’, they are typically more expensive than conventional vehicles – you can expect to add around £1,000-£2,000 on to the typical retail price of a £14,000 model depending on its hybrid design.

However, once over that initial hump in buying a hybrid car, ownership becomes easy – and much more cost-effective.

Hybrid cars are refuelled in exactly the same way as conventional cars and therefore you can use any normal petrol station in the UK. This lack of a technical barrier means that hybrid cars could soon emerge as the ‘norm’ across the UK and replace standard petrol and diesel vehicles.

Aside from the huge reduction in fuel costs, typically 15-30 per cent less fuel per mile, there are other savings to enjoy. For example, if you live in the London area, most hybrid cars are exempt from the London Congestion charge though you must register with the Transport of London and pay an annual £10 fee. Nevertheless with so much to be saved on a daily basis, this exemption alone could save you around £2,000 a year if you regularly travel into London. To see if your car qualifies check out the cars that are exempt.

You will also save money by being placed in a lower tax band – typically hybrid cars fit into the tax bands A-C. If your car emits less than 100g/km of CO2 it will be exempt from taxation altogether. By contrast, a car in the highest tax band could be charged more than £400 a year.

The cost of repairs is still a question with hybrid cars. It may be necessary to go to a specialist centre, although as hybrid cars become more common this should be less of an issue.

What hybrid cars are available?

The number of hybrid cars available in the UK is on the increase although they are still not as readily available as it is hoped they will be in the long term. Here is a list of some of the hybrid cars currently available in the UK – click on the links to find out more:

Honda Civic IMA
Honda Insight
Lexus-GS 450h
Lexus-LS 600h
Lexus-RX 400h
Lexus-RX 450h
Toyota Prius
Volkswagen Touraeg

There are also several hybrid cars available in other markets:

Ford Escape Hybrid
Nissan Altima Hybrid

Here is a list of some of the hybrid cars that are coming soon:

Audi A1 Quattro Hybrid
Audi Q7 Hybrid
BMW X5 Hybrid
BMW X6 ActiveHybrid
Connaught Type D
Honda CR-Z Hybrid
Kia Rio Hybrid
Mercedes-Benz S400 Blue Hybrid
Peugeot 307 Hybrid
Peugeot 308 Hybrid
Porsche Cayenne
Porsche Panamera
Vauxhall Corsa Hybrid
Volkswagen Golf TDI Hybrid

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