Hybrid Vehicles The Way To Go

Have you seen those gas prices? An unprecedented $3.77 will buy you one – yes, just one – gallon of premium gasoline in Hamilton. Unbelievably enough, your money will get you less far in New York City, where the cost for a gallon of regular gas on East 69th Street reached a whopping $3.99 last weekend. Yet, after a period of sober reflection when you realize that prices do not appear to be coming down anytime soon, you might think, “What can be done about this?”

You might contemplate hiding your car keys and resorting to alternate means of transportation. Or you might consider getting yourself a hybrid – the seemingly new trend in automotive technology. Honda has essentially led the way for the new hybrid initiative, releasing its Insight in 1999. On the coattails of Honda are fellow Japanese car manufacturer Toyota and her higher-end sibling, Lexus. Even Ford, the maker of such gas-guzzling and un-green vehicles as the F-150 and the Excursion, has jumped aboard the hybrid bandwagon and General Motors is not too far behind.

According to an April 2005 story featured on CBS News, the sale of electric and alternative-powered vehicles grew by 960 percent between 2000 and 2004. While the number of hybrid cars being sold in the U.S. is still relatively insignificant, the increase in sales is note-worthy because it demonstrates the public’s heightened awareness of more fuel-efficient alternatives. Whether the increase in sales can be attributed to personal economic anxieties, political and ideological sentiments or environmental concerns is undetermined.

What is known, however, is that hybrid technology has been getting a lot of attention lately. So what is this hybrid technology and how does it work? A hybrid vehicle takes the advantageous elements of electric power and gasoline power and fuses them together to achieve a car or SUV (as is becoming more and more the case) with higher fuel-economy and lower emissions. Hybrids are powered by two motors, one electric, the other a gasoline engine, which work in tandem. In the case of the Honda hybrids, the electric power only aids the gasoline power so that the car is never riding solely on its electric power. Conversely, Toyota’s hybrid technology makes it possible for the car to travel at low speeds running entirely on electric power. When riding up a hill or passing a car on the highway, both motors work together to generate the power needed to perform these tasks.

Despite the fact that the electric motor runs on a battery, you will never have to plug your hybrid vehicle into a wall to recharge the power. The electric power in modern day hybrids is entirely self-sufficient. Thanks to regenerative braking, a function that relies on a built-in mechanism which monitors the electrical system, mechanical energy can be turned into electrical energy when the vehicle is braking or coasting, which in turn can be used to charge the car’s battery.

Other features that make the hybrid more fuel-efficient and green are the use of newer materials such as aluminum alloys, plastics and magnesium, which are lighter and thus less taxing to the engine. Additionally, hybrid designs tend to be more aerodynamic, which serves to lower the drag coefficient, in turn making the engine’s job a bit easier.

Some of the downsides to driving a hybrid are the expense (the technology is a bit more expensive and so while you might see an MSRP of $18,225 for a Honda Accord, the hybrid version features an MSRP of $30,140), the diminished performance (as compared to a comparable gasoline-powered vehicle) and fuel-economy that doesn’t quite live up to expectations. These are all valid concerns that hybrid manufacturers are quickly working to address. The hybrids to come are promising greater performance and even better fuel-economy than the previous generation of hybrids.

While the turn of the century saw only a couple of available hybrid vehicles, 2006 and 2007 will bring a greater proliferation of hybrids into the automobile market. Hybrids will be available in coupe, sedan, SUV, pickup and even luxury models in the not-so-distant future. While each advance in the hybrid market is exciting, the one to watch will most likely be the 2007 Lexus GS 450h. As the first luxury hybrid to be offered in the United States, it will be interesting to see whether other luxury automakers rise to the occasion and start thinking about ways to offer performance together with fuel economy and reduced emissions. Of the hybrid vehicles available right now, Toyota Prius owners tend to have the best things to say about their cars. With a 60-mile per gallon rate in city driving scenarios, Prius owners have every right to walk around gas stations in the New York area and boast to other drivers, “Don’t you wish you had one?”