A jackass, someone once said, is a cross between a donkey and a horse. A hybrid, in plainer words. Translated to the auto world, there are those who would put hybrid and jackass in the same sentence, believing the costs outweigh the benefits. They claim that manufacturers are losing money on each one, while prospective buyers could be in for a big bill a few years down the road. It's also been suggested that projected fuel savings are exaggerated.
In the interests of viewers who might be considering the purchase of a hybrid vehicle, or may be confused by what it means, we'd like to offer a few words of explanation. But first, a little background.
The cleanest and most efficient energy source is electricity. That's why, since the turn of the century, engineers and entrepeneurs have attempted to develop a practical electric automobile. Getting the power on the road is not the problem, however. To date, no one has created a lightweight, compact battery capable of covering average driving distances without recharging from a stationary source. In plainer words an electric car can do the job but it won't get you far.
If there's one great hope for the future it is the fuel cell, which combines hydrogen and oxygen to create electricity. The only exhaust a fuel cell produces is water, so clean it's fit to drink. Every car manufacturer is working on fuel cell concepts; several prototype vehicles have already been demonstrated. But the problems of hydrogen distribution plus onboard storage are huge. Best estimates are that it will take another eight years before fuel cell cars can be produced and sold at a reasonable price.
Demands for clean air plus a need for reduced oil consumption have caused some automakers, particularly in Japan, to look for an interim solution. Thus was born the hybrid. In simplest terms, a hybrid combines a gasoline engine and an electric motor to provide adequate power with minimal fuel useage and low emissions. Hybrids do not need to be plugged into an electric outlet in order to be recharged. They charge themselves by using energy normally lost during coasting and braking, and can also be charged by the car's gasoline engine.
The advantage is that the gasoline engine can then be quite small, since power is obtained from not one but two sources. When you consider that at highway speeds the average car requires only 20 horsepower to keep it running, a large gasoline engine makes little sense except for pulling heavy loads.
Driving a hybrid is like any other car except for one thing. When the car is stopped for more than a few seconds, the gasoline engine is shut down automatically. This can be a little eerie at first, as you find yourself sitting in silence. But step on the accelerator and the electric motor gets the car underway until the gas engine cuts in. There is no starter in the conventional sense since one isn't needed.
Some critics have questioned whether hybrids will be durable over the long run. Perhaps they should ask Vancouver BC's Andrew Grant, the world's first Toyota Prius taxi cab driver. After three years of daily use his Prius had logged over 180,000 miles with only a handful of minor problems. Grant has now purchased a new-generation Prius and more of these remarkable vehicles are being used by cab owners willing to take a chance on the technology.
Those same critics have insisted that if you replace the batteries after the warranty expires, it will most likely cost several thousand dollars. Toyota claims prices will drop as hybrids become more popular; battery packs currently run around $4900. However the pack contains 38 modules that can be replaced individually for $138.00 each. Honda's Insight and Civic hybrids have an 8-yr./80,000-mi. warranty on most of the powertrain, including batteries, and a three-year/36,000-mile warranty on the rest of the car. The Prius has an 8-yr./100,000-mi. warranty on the battery and hybrid systems, plus a three-year/36,000-mile warranty on everything else. The electric motors and batteries don't require maintenance over the life of the vehicle.
Now to that legendary fuel mileage: EPA figures for the Prius are 60 mpg city, 51 mpg highway. See something strange there, folks? Better city than highway numbers! Well, that's because the Prius system relies more on the batteries in the city than on the highway. Real life mileage can be very different than EPA's computer-based figures, of course, and will vary according to driving style, weather, and the number of hills and valleys in your area.
At this writing, Toyota dealers have a waiting list for the Prius. Still, it would appear that you've much to gain, as has mother earth, if you buy one. It's those stubbon old mules in the automobile journalist community for whom high performance is the Holy Grail, that may end up looking like jackasses.