Saving the environment has never really been a sexy endeavour — that is, until the advent of the hybrid automobile. Thanks to celebrities such as Susan Sarandon, Cameron Diaz and Leonardo DiCaprio — who made a big deal about buying these environmentally friendly vehicles — the hybrid movement has gained enormous prestige.

While it’s impossible to connect Hollywood’s activism directly to car sales, the fact is that hybrids have garnered great popularity of late.

“There is no question that [the hybrid] has exceeded all expectations,” says Felix Pilorusso, an auto industry consultant in Toronto. In fact, supply is struggling to meet demand. Pilorusso says he bought a Toyota Prius four years ago and waited two months for delivery. Now, the wait is about six months.

The reason for the lag is that the big hybrid manufacturers — currently, Toyota and Honda — underestimated demand. They’re trying to increase production, but they’re constrained by their parts suppliers and limited assembly capacity in their factories. As a result, very few vehicles have been allocated to Canada.

Hybrids sold here annually number in the hundreds, but the big car companies are gearing up for more sales. The protracted spike in oil prices is definitely fuelling demand (pun intended) for these vehicles, which would explain why other manufacturers are clamouring to get their hybrids to market.

At present, there are three hybrids on the road: the Prius, the Honda Civic Hybrid and the Honda Insight. This fall, this triumvirate will be joined by a number of competitors, including the Ford Escape (the first hybrid sport utility vehicle), the Honda Accord V6 Hybrid and the Lexus 3X 330, a luxury SUV.

Even so, Pilorusso says that Toyota, Asia’s largest automaker, leads the pack. In terms of innovation, “Toyota — and Honda to a lesser extent — are about six to eight years ahead of the Detroit-based companies,” he says. Both Ford and Nissan, Pilorusso points out, have licensed some form of hybrid technology from Toyota.

The technology
Although different manufacturers have created varying systems, the essential principle underlying hybrid technology is that the car runs on two distinct yet complementary sources of power: gasoline and electricity.

The fuel tank supplies gasoline to the engine; the engine activates the transmission, which turns the wheels. The engine is also connected to a generator that produces electricity, which is stored in the battery.

Additional electricity is generated through the braking system: stepping on the brake generates heat, which is transformed into electricity and stored in the car’s battery. Because the electrical system is being replenished every time you stop, it is completely regenerative.

The Toyota Prius and the Ford Escape can run entirely on the electric motor; the Honda Civic Hybrid cannot — it is always being powered by the gasoline engine, although it is sometimes supplemented by the electric motor.

General Motors has unveiled a line of trucks that have a standard V8 engine and a regenerative braking system, but the electrical power only runs the computer components of the vehicle (such as the dashboard controls). Although it takes some load off the engine and reduces emissions, this concept is referred to as a “mild hybrid” in industry parlance.

The ride
So how does it feel behind the wheel of a hybrid? Most hybrids have a continuously variable transmission (CVT) box. It’s a “stepless transmission,” which means you don’t hear when the automobile shifts gears. Paul Williams, an automotive journalist for The Ottawa Citizen, has driven hybrids extensively, and he says the motor is typically very quiet.

The engine will shut down when you stop for a red light, which he admits takes some getting used to. Like a golf cart, however, the car starts instantly when you take your foot off the brake.

Fuel efficiency is one of the most touted benefits of a hybrid, and the proof is in the numbers. The Prius is twice as economical as the Toyota Camry: the former requires 4.3 litres per 100 kilometres in combined city and highway driving, while the latter sucks up 8.6 litres every 100 km. (The Prius and the Civic boast about the same fuel efficiency.)

That said, Williams declares these vehicles “don’t shine on the highway.”

Because the hybrid’s electric motor is regenerated every time you press the brake, these vehicles get better mileage in stop-and-go city traffic than on the highway.

“If you’re doing a lot of highway driving, a lot of high-speed highway commuting, maybe a hybrid’s not what you’re looking for,” says Williams.

The motivation
While the technology is pretty astonishing, price remains a sticking point for many buyers. It’s fair to say that a hybrid sedan costs about $10,000 more than a nonhybrid car of comparable size and power.

Although bigger than the first-generation Prius, the 2004 version retails for a little less than $30,000, which is a significant jump from the similar Toyota Corolla, which sells for less than $20,000. The Honda Civic Hybrid costs $29,000; the nonhybrid variety is about $20,000.

If you live in either Ontario or B.C., the elevated cost can be partly offset by government rebates: in Ontario, hybrid buyers get $2,000 for doing their part for the environment; in B.C., it’s $1,000.

While it would be nice to think that the vogue for hybrid cars reflects a collective effort to reduce smog, Williams wagers the impetus is self-interest. “People are looking for more economy,” he says. “They’re looking for a way to get the same power for less money and the same quality of transportation for less money.

“They won’t buy a hybrid until the economics of the purchase make sense,” he says. “Right now, it doesn’t, because there’s a premium on the price of these vehicles, which takes many years to get a return on.”

Andre Mayer is a writer in Toronto.