Hybrid Car Shopping Information

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Frequently Asked Questions

Do currently available hybrids need to be plugged in?

No. In conventional hybrids, the batteries recharge by reclaiming energy when the car brakes or by converting energy from gasoline via the hybrid’s internal combustion engine. Yet, the Chevy Volt is the first of many upcoming “plug-in hybrids,” offering the option to recharge more powerful batteries via a common household electric socket, while still maintaining a small gasoline engine to ensure longer driving range.

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How do hybrids work?

Instead of relying solely on a gasoline internal combustion engine, hybrids use both a gas engine and electric motors. The energy used by the electric motors are stores in rechargeable batteries. The ability to partially use electricity as a fuel means that you burn less gasoline. The computer system on a hybrid makes the decisions about which energy source to use at different times, based on maximizing efficiency while providing the same level of safety and comfort as conventional cars. Our technology section provides more details about how hybrids work.

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Is maintenance more expensive with a hybrid?

Maintaining a hybrid doesn’t cost any more than a conventional car, and may even cost less due to decreased wear and tear on the engine and braking system. You might want to take your hybrid to a dealer, especially considering that automakers offer longer warranties on emission components and battery pack. Dealer service centers do usually charge a little more, but now that there are nearly 2 million hybrids on U.S. roads, many friendly neighborhood mechanics are now familiar with hybrids and are well trained to handle maintenance.

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Can you drive a hybrid in extremely cold or hot weather?

Hybrid cars are designed to operate in the same range of conditions and temperatures as conventional vehicles. For example, Honda’s specs indicate that its Integrated Motor Assist system will operate as low as 22 degrees below zero Fahrenheit, although we have seen reports of a Prius in Barrow, Alaska suffering from a frozen and damaged battery pack—at 56 below zero. See how the Chevy Volt plug-in hybrid was tested for frigid conditions. Something to consider: Gas mileage during cold weather is diminished for all vehicles, hybrid or not.

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Can you tow with a hybrid?

Towing a Toyota Prius or Honda requires front wheels off the ground. Honda’s (manual transmission) can be towed with wheels on the ground, but it’s not recommended. Honda’s with CVT can be towed with wheels off the ground. Tow dollies are commonly used.

Toyota and Honda will say not to tow anything behind their hybrids. Except for the Insight, which has an aluminum frame, it’s done everyday. Prius and Civic Hybrid can tow with a tongue weight of less than 100 lbs and total trailer under 1000 lbs. (Just basic guidance; be careful.)

General Motors Two-Mode Hybrids, like the Chevy Tahoe, are specifically designed for full towing capabilities. Other SUV hybrids have adequate towing power. For example, the Ford Escape Hybrid and Lexus RX 400h have towing capacities of 1,000 pounds and 3,500 pounds respectively.

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How often do hybrid batteries need replacing? Is replacement expensive and disposal an environmental problem?

The hybrid battery packs are designed to last for the lifetime of the vehicle, somewhere between 150,000 and 200,000 miles, probably a whole lot longer. The warranty covers the batteries for between eight and 10 years, depending on the carmaker and the location.

Battery toxicity is a concern, although today’s hybrids use NiMH batteries, not the environmentally problematic rechargeable nickel cadmium. “Nickel metal hydride batteries are benign. They can be fully recycled,” says Ron Cogan, editor of the Green Car Journal. Toyota and Honda say that they will recycle dead batteries and that disposal will pose no toxic hazards.

There’s no definitive word on replacement costs because they are almost never replaced. We have seen anecdotal reports of total battery replacements costing about $3,000.

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Does long-term storage of hybrids create a problem?

Hybrid storage for less than three months does not create a problem. If you plan to be storing your hybrid for a longer period, it’s a good idea to have the vehicle started up and run for 30 minutes every three months. If your hybrid is left dormant for even longer periods, you may need to have a professional test the state-of-charge, and potentially give the Nickel-metal-hydride batteries a boost.

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Are hybrids safe?

The fact that hybrids run on electricity as well as gas has no bearing on their safety. You can always check out a car’s safety rating, but this is primarily based on crash tests. Many of the current hybrid cars are small, quick, and nimble (good at avoiding accidents), and rank high in safety ratings for their weight class. SUVs make people feel safe, but have an atrocious record in terms of rolling over and being difficult to maneuver. Furthermore, SUVs do not have to meet the same safety standards as passenger cars, because of federal rules classifying SUVs as light trucks. Safety is not a reason to avoid getting a hybrid, especially when evaluating the hybrid version of a vehicle compared to its conventional counterpart.

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Are all hybrids slow econo-boxes?

Just the opposite. Hybrid technology breaks the 1970s stereotype of fuel-efficient cars as strictly under-powered and lacking creature comforts. With gas-electric systems, engineers can decide how to strike the right balance between performance and efficiency. There are a growing number of hybrid compacts, sedans, SUVs, and trucks—and soon carmakers will offer hybrid sub-compacts and minivans. Lexus pioneered luxury hybrid cars, with Mercedes, BMW and others following in its track.

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Where can you drive a hybrid solo in the carpool lane?

The HOV access laws are changing rapidly and are subject to local interpretation. Contact your local transportation authority to get a definitive answer.

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What tax breaks do you get with a hybrid?

The hybrid tax incentive program, which went into effect on Jan. 1, 2006, as part of the “Energy Policy Act of 2005.”, concluded on Dec. 31, 2010. New incentives, described on our incentives and legislation page, focus on plug-in hybrids and electric cars.

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Will hydrogen fuel cell technology or pure battery-electric cars wipe out hybrids?

Most experts agree that cars powered by hydrogen will not hit the mainstream market for another ten to twenty years. It’s likely that the first set of hydrogen-powered cars will use more than one energy source, and thus will be considered hybrids. Electric cars began arriving in late 2010, but will co-exist with hybrids, giving consumers a range of options for electric-drive vehicles, from no-cord hybrids, to plug-in hybrids to full electric cars.

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Past Years

  • 2010 Hybrid Cars – Year in Review

    What are the major trends we expect as hybrid cars boldly move into the first year of their second decade? Plug-ins, new models, a growing market, and an evolving Prius.

  • 2009 Hybrid Cars – Year in Review

    What will be the biggest developments in 2009? Read about new hybrids coming out, upgrades for 2009, and where the hybrid market is headed.

  • 2008 Hybrid Cars – Year in Review

    What kind of year was 2008 for hybrids? Read about the biggest trends, quotes, news stories, and hybrid car introductions.