2013 Ford C-Max Hybrid, Los Angeles, August 2012Enlarge Photo
Over the past decade, hybrid electric cars have gone from being niche market vehicles for movie stars and green thinkers to everyday vehicles that can save you big money on your gas bill.
In fact, with more hybrid cars to choose from than ever before, there’s never a better time to make the switch from a regular gasoline car to a hybrid.
But how is a hybrid different from a regular gas car? How do they work, and do you need special skills to drive them?
Different names, similar concepts
While there are several different types of hybrid drivetrain and many different hybrid cars on the market to choose from, the fundamental operation of any hybrid remains the same.
At a very simplistic level, a hybrid car combines the low speed torque and high efficiency of one or more electric motors with a gasoline engine, producing a car that with a higher gas mileage and lower emissions than a similarly-sized gasoline-only car.
2012 Honda CR-Z
2012 Honda CR-ZEnlarge Photo
All hybrids also offer automated start/stop of the gasoline engine, switching it off when coasting to a stop and using one or more electric motors to recapture the energy of movement, recharging its hybrid battery pack and slowing the car down in the process.
Some cars, like the 2012 Toyota Prius, are series-parallel, two-motor, full hybrids. Using a complex, computer-controlled planetary gearing system, the Prius can power its wheels on electric power only, gasoline power only, or a combination of the two.
Other cars, like the 2012 Honda CR-Z, are single-motor, series, mild-hybrids. With the motor placed in line between the engine and transmission, mild hybrids only use the electrical motor to assist the gasoline engine, and cannot power the car on electricity alone.
While pretty much any hybrid will give you improved gas mileage over a conventional car, it’s worth noting that full hybrids tend to offer the best gas mileage, although they do tend to command a higher sticker premium than a mild hybrid.
Just like an automatic
We’re often asked if you need any special skills or training to drive a modern hybrid.
The answer, thankfully, is no.
2012 Toyota Prius Plug-In Hybrid
2012 Toyota Prius Plug-In HybridEnlarge Photo
Designed to give the same driving experience as any other automatic car, hybrid cars can be driven by anyone with a driver’s license.
What may feel different however, is the way in which the transmission operates.
Because some hybrid cars use computer-controlled, continuously variable transmissions, you may find the conventional automatic gear selector has been replaced by a lever with just three settings: D, R, N.
LIke an automatic car, to select gear, you’ll need to turn the car on and place your foot on the brake pedal, then move the selector to the appropriate position for Drive, Reverse or Neutral.
In some cases, you’ll also find a ‘B’ setting. Similar to the low gear setting on a conventional automatic gearbox, ‘B’ uses engine braking on steep downhill grades to help control the car’s speed without the risk of overheating the brakes.