Think car buyers understand what a hybrid is, or a plug-in electric car? Think again.

A new survey conducted by research firm Synovate finds that many of almost 1,900 new-car "buyers and intenders" don't understand how hybrid vehicles work.

Worse, most of them don't seem to understand how conventional hybrids--which have now been sold in the U.S. for a decade--differ from cars that plug in.

Survey data shows that most consumers consider buying fuel-efficient cars to save money, not for altruistic or environmental reasons. But we suspect unfamiliarity with these types of cars is bound to deter potential buyers, perhaps hurting hybrid sales.

2011 Chevrolet Volt

2011 Chevrolet Volt

The results of the Synovate survey showed that only 50 percent of respondents knew that hybrid-electric vehicles have an additional battery pack.

One third knew that hybrids could run in electric-only mode, but roughly a quarter thought that hybrids have no tailpipe (which only applies to battery electrics) and another quarter thought hybrid vehicles take more than 15 minutes to refuel.

This leads us to conclude that survey respondents didn't understand the differences among three different types of fuel-efficient vehicles:

  • Hybrids, which can run on electric power for short distances at low speeds (e.g. 2011 Toyota Prius)
  • Plug-in hybrids, which can run on electric power for longer distances and recharge from the electric grid (e.g. 2011 Chevy Volt, 2012 Toyota Prius Plug-In Hybrid)
  • Battery electric vehicles (e.g. 2011 Nissan Leaf) that refuel solely by plugging into a wall socket, and have no engine at all

Surprisingly, Synovate found that buyers knew relatively more about battery electric vehicles like the Leaf, though knowledge about how they would work in real life--for instance, how they are recharged--was lacking.

2011 Nissan Leaf, Nashville, October 2010

2011 Nissan Leaf, Nashville, October 2010

Perhaps that's because the electric-car concept is simple, analogous to consumer electronic goods. No combustion engine in your laptop or mobile phone, right?

The survey offers a sobering reminder for those of us in automotive media, who tend to sling around terms like "plug-in hybrid" without checking to see how many of our readers actually understand what we're talking about.

But we'd like to get your opinion (whether you own a hybrid vehicle or not).

Why is there such confusion in the market, and what could automakers (or others) do to help buyers understand their options more clearly?

Leave us your thoughts in the Comments below.

[Synovate via TheCarConnection]


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