How do hybrid cars get better fuel efficiency than traditional cars?

How do hybrid cars get better fuel efficiency than traditional cars?

— David Walley, Framingham, MA

Hybrid cars get better gas mileage and pollute less because their highly efficient electric motors run on recycled waste energy generated during normal driving. These cars actually have two engines under the hood—a traditional gasoline-powered motor used for acceleration, and an electric motor that kicks in and out of service when the car is maintaining cruising speeds and when the car is idling or backing up. Excess power generated by the gasoline engine is stored in batteries and used to fuel the electric engine, so owners never need to plug the cars in.

Hybrids have two complex drive trains, so consumers can expect to pay a premium of $3,500 or more for one, depending upon extra options ordered. But, as with most new innovations, as demand for hybrids rises (there is a long waiting list for the Toyota Prius) and manufacturers increase production accordingly, prices are likely to come down. And the demand will surely rise as long as gas prices continue to soar.

Despite the price premium, owners can expect to earn back the extra investment of going hybrid within three to five years of ownership through savings at the gas pump—especially if their hybrids are replacing gas-guzzlers like big SUVs. Hybrid owners who drive the average 12,000 miles per year can expect to save anywhere between $600 and $1,000 each year on gasoline, depending upon their driving patterns. High-mileage commuters will see their savings mount even faster. Also, the federal government currently offers hybrid owners a tax credit of up to $1,500 for purchasing a “clean fuels” vehicle, though this incentive is set to expire after 2006. And several U.S. states—including Colorado, Connecticut, Illinois, Maine, Maryland, New Mexico, New York, Oregon and Utah—offer their own incentives and tax rebates for hybrid owners.

Those ready to take the hybrid plunge have more options than ever at their disposal. The first two hybrids to hit the U.S. market in 2000 were the Honda Insight and the Toyota Prius, both of which claim fuel efficiencies of up to 60 miles per gallon and are available today in updated forms. In the meantime, Honda has also introduced a hybrid version of its popular Civic model, and is soon to introduce a hybrid Accord.

American automakers are slated to release new hybrid SUVs this fall, beginning with Ford’s hybrid Escape, which boasts 40 miles per gallon. Lexus is also offering a hybrid SUV, and a full hybrid Saturn Vue is coming. Meanwhile, Chevrolet has a hybrid version of its full-size Silverado pick-up truck for fleet buyers, though it only gets 10 to 12 percent better fuel economy over its standard GM 1500 pickup. Given all the choices—not to mention the savings at the pump—there’s never been a better time to get behind the wheel of a fuel-efficient hybrid.

CONTACTS:,; Clean Car Campaign,;,; Electric Drive Transportation Association,