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Bankrate's 2007 New Car Guide
Going green
Environmental concerns are bringing major changes -- right down to the cars we drive.
Going green
The lowdown on hybrids
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The typical buyer
Reduced fuel consumption still drives most people to buy hybrids, but it is no longer the entire story.

"Until recently, the typical hybrid buyer was the environmentalist," Reed says. "Now you might see a buyer who is politically opposed to the environmentalist, but for whom the idea of sending money to countries that hate us doesn't sit well."

That opposition to buying foreign oil may be enough to drive those buyers to hybrids, Reed says. Along with its quasipatriotic undertones, environmental issues have also lost many of their polarizing characteristics, he says.

Hybrids going mainstream? Toyota Prius sales jumped 76 percent over last June -- but the 27,000 sold was still only 1.5 percent of the cars sold that month.

"Green used to be polarizing. The Green party was seen as radical," Reed says. "But now every corporation wants some green appearance and to show support to green initiatives. In the car business that is reflected by the fact that there are people who want to save on gas and support energy independence, and we are seeing it in the sales numbers."

Another key demographic buying hybrids is the early adapting technology lover. For them, buying a hybrid proves their hipness and that they are ahead of the curve.

Under the hood
Hybrids certainly are a technological leap forward from a typical car.

By definition, a hybrid uses some combination of internal combustion and an electric motor to power the vehicle. Every hybrid on the market so far has used gasoline as the fuel of choice, but the analysts say to watch out for diesel hybrids in the near future.

The typical hybrid setup, like the one developed by Toyota, uses an electric motor to get you going from a standstill and then switches to a small gasoline engine once you are going about 35 miles per hour or faster. The gas engine then does most of the work, getting only an occasional assist from the electric motor when the car needs a burst of speed, or when it comes to a stop again.

Other carmakers, such as Honda, use a different combination, and instead use the gasoline engine from the get-go, relying on the electric motor for assists when more power is needed.

While most people may think of a golf cart when someone mentions a battery-powered car, the surprising thing is that an electric motor typically performs better than a gasoline engine in low RPM situations, such as when you first accelerate, Reed says. That's because a gasoline engine has to rev to a higher engine speed before it gets its full torque potential. Electric motors gain their full potential the instant they switch on, offering a peppy initial acceleration.

No matter which setup designers use, all hybrids recharge their batteries through an innovative technology borrowed from locomotives. The technology is called regenerative braking. As you slow down, your brakes convert your forward motion into electric energy and route it back to the batteries. To give an extra boost, all cars also have an onboard alternator that charges the battery pack whenever the gas engine engages.

Unlike true electric vehicles, no hybrid sold in the United States needs to be plugged in to an electric outlet to recharge -- the hybrids generate all the electricity they need right onboard.

Part of the reason hybrids are so efficient is because every time the car comes to a stop, the gasoline engine turns off. This means you aren't wasting fuel as you idle in stop-and-go traffic.

-- Posted: Aug. 2, 2007
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