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Things to Know Before Buying a Hybrid Car

By • Apr 28th, 2009 • Category: Clean Car Talk Posts

In the market for a hybrid? Great choice! Thanks to competition, technology and general condition of the economy, there are deals out there for those who are thinking about buying a hybrid car. At first glance, it would seem that buying a hybrid offers the best of both worlds – the chance to save on fuel cost as well as an opportunity to leave less of a footprint on the environment. With current federal tax credits, hybrid cars are a little more affordable too. But are hybrid cars really all that they have been claimed to be?

If you are thinking about purchasing a hybrid, go beyond the mileage and emission ratings. Here are a few things that you’ll want to consider even before test driving one.

The Hybrids-Are-Different-to-Drive Factor

prius on freeway Things to Know Before Buying a Hybrid CarIt’s hard enough to research and decide on a conventional car. With hybrid cars there are new technologies and new driving habits to deal with. Driving a hybrid is not exactly like driving your current gasoline engine car. Due to the way the hybrid system works, your driving habits will need to change, both for driving the car and then driving it to maximize its efficiency potentials. Buying a hybrid may or may not be the right choice for you, but you need to be fully informed before you are even able to make that decision.

For those who are not familiar with how a hybrid car works, here’s a short primer. If you have to remember anything about a hybrid car, it is the following: 

  • A hybrid car has a smaller engine (using a typical fuel like gasoline and diesel) that turns a generator.
  • The generator, which is turned by the engine to generate electricity, has essentially 2 jobs: to power the electric motor and to recharge the onboard battery packs.
  • For what is called a series hybrid system, the electric motor is the only power source driving the car’s wheels to propel the car. For a parallel hybrid system, both the engine and electric motor combine to propel the car.
  • Series hybrid systems tend to be more efficient because the engine only drives the generator, thus it can be controlled to operate at its most efficient conditions. Parallel hybrid systems would require the engine to work harder to recharge the battery and drive the car as well.
  • Almost all hybrid cars can drive on battery power alone for however long the stored battery can give the car. This is typically a few miles depending on how fast you drive, and in the case of the latest Toyota Prius (2009 model), its “EV-Drive” mode allows it to go up to 25 mph for about a mile. This is gas-free driving before the engine is turned on the charge the battery pack.
  • Almost all hybrid cars can recover energy when slowing down and stopping, and store this energy in the battery packs for future use. This feature is called regenerative braking or regen, and is a major contributor to higher mileage performance of hybrid cars.

I’m sure there are other details that make up a hybrid car system, but these should be sufficient to get the uninitiated going with his/her buying decision. Being a hybrid driver, one of the things you’ll notice is, as a driver, you’ll find yourself much more aware of what you’re doing and what the car is doing. Beside racing drivers and maybe pilots, hybrid drivers are probably next in line for “becoming one with your machine.” 

The Dollar Economy vs. Fuel Economy Factor

cars at gas pump 300x225 Things to Know Before Buying a Hybrid CarOne of the biggest arguments for buying a hybrid car is that it will save you money, but that may not be the case. In order to determine if you will really be saving any money by purchasing a hybrid car, it is necessary to take a look at the entire picture.

Hybrid cars almost always cost quite a bit more than comparable regular gasoline powered vehicles. And when gas prices spiked to over $4.50 a gallon like in many parts of the United States in 2008, prices of hybrid cars rose even further. In some cases, like with the Toyota Prius, there were not even enough vehicles to meet the demand. The little available inventory was flying off the lots at thousands above MSRP (manufacturer suggested retail prices.) Granted this was not really your typical scenario, as car manufacturers could not have anticipated the jump in gas prices and thus have planned to make more cars available. But the dynamic here is clearly demonstrated in that buyers think and buy based on short-term influences.

So does getting higher mileage justify paying a premium for hybrid cars? On initial inspection it seems the more mpg you get out of your hybrid, the better shape you’re be in. Taking this very concern into consideration, Consumer Reports compared 5-year cost of ownership for hybrid cars and their comparable counterpart. As noted in their article “Hybrid vs. conventional cars,”

Gas savings over five years range from about $1,500 for the Chevy Malibu, Lexus GS, and Saturn Aura hybrids to $4,500 for the Tahoe Hybrid, based on driving 12,000 miles per year and paying $4 per gallon for regular gasoline and $4.20 for premium.

Depreciation makes up a whopping 45 percent of owner costs in the first five years, though it can be less for hybrids because of the high demand for used models. We factor in depreciation, assuming that owners will trade in their vehicles after five years, a typical ownership period. But you’ll realize savings over a conventional model (available to subscribers) if you trade in your hybrid anytime after the payback period.

Even for gasoline at below $2.50 per gallon, hybrid owners still save hundreds of dollars per year based on my own calculations. So the gas cost savings are undeniable, and future hybrid models with even higher mpg will be more attractive. You’ll want to look more closely at these numbers if you drive less than 10,000 miles per year.

Furthermore, many hybrids are eligible for federal tax incentives which can save buyers many more thousands of dollar. Visit the page “New Energy Tax Credits for Hybrids” on fueleconomy.gov and view the car make and model of your interest.

The Battery Replacement Factor

hybrid cars deals Things to Know Before Buying a Hybrid CarAnother question that you should ask yourself before buying a hybrid car is if the car, or its components, will be durable over the long haul. When taking a cross section of the earliest hybrid owners, in most cases, it was found that the hybrids held up pretty well over the years, even with rigorous daily use in some cases.

However, you should know that the cost of battery replacement for a hybrid vehicle after the warranty has expired is considerably more than battery replacement in a standard gas powered vehicle. We’re not talking about cheap DieHard batteries for starting your car here. We’re talking high-tech rechargeable battery packs.

Whereas a battery for a gas-powered car will normally cost less than $100, a hybrid battery pack replacement will run at least in the few thousand dollar range. Manufacturers expect these costs to drop, though, as the demand for hybrids increases. But for now your total cost of ownership must include replacement battery pack cost. But here’s where the unknowns start kicking in.

Battery packs for hybrid cars are still in their infancy state. The industry itself is still learning and developing as it progresses. Manufacturers claims that their battery packs were designed to last the life of the vehicles (possibly 200,000 miles) and therefore need not be replaced. But not all battery packs are trouble-free, and for those unfortunate enough to run into battery problems in their hybrids, getting them fixed can be costly and time-consuming. Read this interesting article on “Behind the Hidden Costs of Hybrids” at hybridCARS.com.

On top of the replacement cost issue is the recycling issue. Many manufacturers indicated that they intend to recycle all replaced battery packs. Again if you care about the environment, and I assume you are since you’re considering a hybrid, inquire about battery pack recycling at your hybrid car dealer. In the near term when hybrid and electric cars are still a novel, this is not yet an issue. But the more these cars get on the road and eventually replaced, the more attention we’ll all have to pay to battery pack recycling.

The Decision

The most important thing to remember when considering a hybrid is to make sure that you are a well-informed consumer. Heavy use of your favorite search engines on the Internet will give you big paybacks in money and time spent buying your next hybrid car. Ultimately, the new vehicle you choose should be based on your personal preference after weighing the pros and cons your potential hybrid car purchase.

The great thing is, even if you can’t, or won’t, buy a hybrid car as your next car purchase, you can still choose from other excellent, affordable and very efficient cars available on the market today. But that’s a topic for another post.

Share your hybrid car buying experience with us. Your advice and suggestions will be valuable in helping others make intelligent decisions.

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is a marketing communications consultant working in the San Diego area. Cuong is dedicated to helping individuals and companies maximize their presence on the Internet and efficiently take products and services to market through SEO and network marketing. Cuong also maintains a blog on Marketing at marketingautopsyblog.com. You can also find Cuong Huynh's profile on LinkedIn. For fun he maintains a blog on Vietnamese pho, soccer and do storyboards for movie and film projects. Follow Cuong on Twitter @CuongHuynh, @LovingPho, @CleanCarTalk, @BlockbusterFilm, @SoccerUSA.
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