How Hybrids Sip Gas, Save Money and Sweeten the Air

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 By David Koontz

More than three million Prius vehicles quietly navigate America’s roads now

A smug 2009 Toyota Prius, preens and greens in the desert

Update: This article was first published in 2010. Today with more than 3 million Toyota Prius models sold as of June 2013 and gas prices hovering around $4 per gallon, the case for hybrids is still strong. Refer to for recent tax incentive developments.
More than one million hybrid vehicles quietly navigate America’s roads now, energizing proponents of this technology. Their popularity is no longer in question. Increasingly technicians see them in service bays, car enthusiasts learn how they work, and ecologically-conscious, if not economically-concerned drivers, wish they owned them. There is even unified government, industry and union support for the technology.
From the sweet air of the White House Rose Garden on May 19th, President Obama announced a deal brokered with the auto industry, United AutoWorkers union, the State of California (and other states that want to adopt more stringent standards), that would limit greenhouse gas emissions. The agreement would effectively reduce America’s oil consumption by 5% per year from 2011 to 2016, and increase the average fuel economy of new vehicles sold in America to 35.5 miles per gallon (mpg) by 2016. $50 billion in federal loans will entice automakers to meet that goal over the next seven years.
The current corporate average fuel economy (CAFE) stands at 25 mpg, so we have a lot of work to do to gain those additional 10.5 mpg. It will be met with a variety of technologies and consumer choices, including gasoline-electric hybrids, plug-in hybrids, diesel engine variants, engines that breathe better through more valves, superchargers, or turbochargers, vehicle downsizing, improved aerodynamics and weight-saving techniques.

2010 Honda Insight

A 2010 Honda Insight smiles at the road ahead

Let’s look at how hybrids sip less fuel while belching fewer pollutants. Basically hybrids use battery power to augment gasoline engine power to propel the vehicle. When the vehicle is stopped in traffic, the gasoline engine is shut off. On full hybrids such as the Toyota Prius or Honda Insight, the battery propels the car until it reaches a certain speed or the driver stomps on the accelerator. As more speed is demanded, the gasoline engine restarts and both power sources propel the car. On a mild hybrid such as the Chevrolet Silverado or Saturn Vue, the gasoline engine is shut off when the vehicle is stopped, but it restarts as soon as the driver presses the accelerator. During hard acceleration, a combination starter/alternator provides additional electronic power.
Full hybrid technology usually adds about 10% to the vehicle’s price, while a mild hybrid adds a little less. So, is a hybrid vehicle worth the price differential with a similar sized, gasoline-engine vehicle? That depends on several variables: how much, how long and where you drive; the price of gasoline; insurance price differences; and whether you’ll need to replace the battery during your ownership of the vehicle. A mild hybrid increases fuel economy a modest 10-15% compared to a standard gasoline engine vehicle. But a full hybrid increases mpg by 25-30% compared to a similar-sized vehicle.
Gasoline in my neighborhood costs about $2.85 for a major-branded, standard 87-octane brew. A year ago the same fuel cost about $4.25. Most economists say gas will not get much cheaper and will likely cost more in the future. So, if we predict that the average price of gasoline will increase 10% per year, our sample hybrid vehicle yields 38 mpg while a similar gasoline engine version gets 29 mpg (about 30% more efficient), and we drive 15,000 miles per year, it would take about six years to pay back a vehicle price differential of about $2,500. That example considers fuel savings alone. Consider also that the 2009 federal tax incentive for purchasing certain hybrid vehicles can save you from $1,950 for a four-wheel drive Ford Escape or Mercury Mariner, for example, to $3,000 for two-wheel drive versions of the same vehicles. Now you could get your investment back in as little as one or two years.

2007 Ford Escape

This 2007 Ford Escape Hybrid has paid for its price premium already

Are hybrid vehicles as reliable as standard gasoline engine models? In short, yes. Most vehicle manufacturers offer extended vehicle warranties to cover repairs and, other than the early Saturn Vues, hybrids have been very reliable. While most batteries are safely tucked behind panels on hybrid vehicles, we recommend following precautions such as these when working with the high-voltage battery and electrical circuits.
As with any vehicle, when you need to maintain or service them, click on or to obtain a valuable subscription to Chilton’s comprehensive service procedures, specifications, graphics and wiring diagrams. These subscriptions, designed respectively for do-it-yourselfers and professional technicians, can save you many hours of frustration and pay for themselves as soon as they are used.
David Koontz, Chilton David Koontz is the publisher of Chilton. He enjoys writing in all genres — from technical to poetry. In addition to a few domestic vehicles, he has owned, repaired and rebuilt some intriguing imported cars from makes such as Alfa Romeo, BMW, Fiat, Jaguar, Merkur, MG and SAAB. David has spent most of his life in southern California and resides there with his wife, Donna.

2 responses to “How Hybrids Sip Gas, Save Money and Sweeten the Air”

  1. Smog Check says:

    Do these hybrid cars require the biennial smog checks like other cars?

    • ChiltonDIY says:

      Hi there.
      States regulate smog checks, so to be sure check the requirements for the state the vehicle is registered in.
      Hybrid vehicles also have a gas engine that needs to be tested, same as a standard gas-engine powered vehicle.

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