What to Look for When Comparing Hybrids

Hybrids are for people who like the idea of electric propulsion, but aren’t quite ready to embrace the whole plug-in lifestyle thing. Thanks to mainstreaming efforts by Toyota, modern hybrids offer fully-electric operation, up to a certain speed. Once the magic velocity rate has been achieved, a gas-burning engine comes to life, whooshing you past the speed and distance limitations of the battery pack. For many urban drivers, the hybrid’s gas engine rarely comes online. Allowing them to enjoy the silent, tulip-friendly EV mode for most of their commute. It also saves them a buckload of cash at the pump (read more about how hybrids work).

Warranty / Repair Costs

Buying a hybrid isn’t like buying a normal car. There are plenty of good reasons to buy, but lots of differences to consider. For example, a hybrid is a lot more complicated to build than a regular car. There’s a massive battery pack, several miles of wiring, an electric motor, a specially adapted/designed transmission, the regenerative braking system. And lest we forget, an onboard computer system that would make a NASA engineer drool.

What does that mean for you? Well. If you thought owning an old Porsche would be expensive, just wait till your Prius gets over the 100k mile mark. Those massive batteries cost around $3k, and you don’t even want to know what the transmission, or any of the electronics cost.

Related: Which car costs less, gas, hybrid, or electric vehicle?

Fortunately, most hybrids offer generous factory warranties. The 2013 Kia Optima Hybrid for example, has a 10-year / 100,000 mile warranty on both the hybrid drivetrain, and the batteries. But car companies are only required to back their batteries for 8-years / 80,000 miles, so read the fine print carefully.

Type of Hybrid

2012 Toyota PriusA ‘full-hybrid’, like the 2013 Toyota Prius, can propel itself using electricity alone. Once a certain speed is reached, or the batteries are depleted, the gas engine comes online to charge the batteries, and provide power. The gas engine and the electric motor can also work together, providing maximum power for passing maneuvers…and stoplight races.
By contrast, a ‘mild-hybrid’, like the 2013 Chevy Malibu Eco, can’t run on electricity alone. Every time you slow down, or start to coast, the gas engine shuts down to save fuel. The car’s accessories continue to run off of a battery pack, and the gas engine remains off until you release the brake pedal.

When accelerating, a small electric motor kicks in with a little extra twist. But the main focus of a mild hybrid is to reduce the drain on the gas engine, not provide electric propulsion.

A ‘plug-in hybrid’, like the 2013 Chevy Volt or 2013 Ford Fusion Energi, is driven solely on electric power. The gasoline motor simply acts as an onboard generator (spinning at a constant RPM), feeding juice to the batteries and electric motor(s). When you park it at night, simply plug it in (hence the term) to charge the batteries. The next day, you’ll have 30-50 miles of gas-saving electric range.

Will the hybrid you want save you the most money?

Everybody’s daily grind is different, so naturally, you need to choose the hybrid that best fits your needs. For example, if you spend much of your time in stop & go traffic, followed by brief stints on the highway, then a traditional hybrid like a 2013 Toyota Camry Hybrid, or 2013 Ford Fusion Hybrid, will probably save you the most money.

Related: Electric car federal and state tax incentives

If you only travel 20-40 miles per day, but don’t want the range limitations of a full EV, then a plug-in hybrid (like a 2013 Toyota Prius Plugin) would be your best bet. You could handle your commute on battery power alone, saving that tank of gas for a weekend jaunt to the mountains/beach.

Should your daily travel include lots of highway time, then a mild hybrid, like the 2013 Buick Lacrosse eAssist, is what you want. A regular hybrid is designed to maximize efficiency in stop/go situations. This means that the highway fuel economy will often suffer, because the gas engine will be online most of the time. A mild-hybrid on the other hand, already uses a fuel efficient engine, combined with tall gearing, and electric assist. This means that you’ll get excellent highway mileage, without sacrificing in-town efficiency.

Recommended: Here are the best Electric Car Deals right now