Prius car charging
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Due to the decreasing supply of fossil fuels and the increasing demand for oil, auto manufacturers are developing cars that use other sources of energy, such as electricity and hydrogen. Called hybrids, these cars combine two or more sources of power that can directly or indirectly generate propulsion power.

Most hybrids today combine combustible gas engines and electric motors, which maximize performance, reduce fuel consumption, and emit far less carbon than gasoline-fueled vehicles.

Hybrid cars are often confused with electric cars. Hybrid cars are generally gasoline-burning machines that use electric parts to store and reuse energy that usually goes to waste in conventional cars. Theoretically, diesel-electric hybrid vehicles should be even more fuel-efficient, but diesel engines and hybrid systems can be very expensive.

How does a hybrid car work?

There are many different models of hybrid cars today, but what they have in common is the ability to produce electricity, store it in a large battery and use it to help power the car. Hybrid vehicles come with a regenerative braking system that generates electric power to help keep their batteries charged.

When you apply the brakes, the electric motor immediately generates electricity, and the magnetic drag slows down the car. There’s also a conventional hydraulic braking system that stops the car in case the regenerative braking is not enough.

Types of hybrid cars

Car manufacturers use a variety of hybrid drivetrain technologies in their hybrid cars.

  • Mild hybrids: A mild hybrid car saves much more fuel compared with their internal-combustion counterparts. However, they are not as robust as full-fledged hybrid cars. Mild hybrids rely primarily on a gasoline-powered engine but use a small, electric motor during idling, braking and coasting. Some Honda cars and late-model General Motors SUVs and trucks are mild hybrids.
  • Power-split or parallel hybrids: Power-split or parallel hybrid cars are popular in the U.S. A power-split hybrid operates on a larger electric motor than a mild hybrid. Because a power-split hybrid consumes more electricity during normal driving, it can save much more fuel than a mild hybrid system. One popular example of a power-split hybrid car is the Toyota Prius.
  • Plug-in hybrid cars: A plug-in hybrid car, also referred to as plug-in hybrid electric vehicle (PHEV), is much more dependent on its electric motor than a conventional hybrid, using electricity as the main power source for the drive train. Plug-in hybrids use the gasoline engine only as a backup or supplementary power source. They typically use their electric range of 10 to 35 miles before switching to normal hybrid operation. Some of the most popular plug-in hybrids include the Chevy Volt and Toyota Prius Plug-in.
  • Plug-in electric vehicles: While plug-in hybrids achieve some of the highest fuel-efficiency ratings, plug-in electric cars use no gasoline. The electric engine in plug-in electric cars relies on a battery that can be recharged from an external source of power, such as a wall socket. Plug-in electric cars have a limited range per charge, which makes it impossible to travel long distances on one charge. The Nissan Leaf is an example of a plug-in electric car.

The bottom line

If you take a lot of long-distance trips, a diesel car will suit you better. If you do most of your driving in town, however, a hybrid car is worth considering. Just keep in mind that hybrid cars are more expensive than non-hybrids, and the money you save on fuel may not be enough to offset the higher purchase price.

Use Bankrate’s auto loan calculator to figure out what the monthly payments will be on your new car.

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