This article will explore what it is like to own and use a hybrid electric car.
Our 3-month-old hybrid electric Toyota Prius is a really great car. My wife and I argue (gently) over who gets to drive it. She always wins. My teenage kids find the back seat more comfortable than the Subaru Forester we traded in. The Prius drives, accelerates, cruises at 75 mph on the freeway, seats 5, has 4 doors and a trunk like, drives as well in the snow as, and fills up at the gas pump just like a Toyota Corolla or any other quality compact sedan. You do not need to plug it in to recharge its batteries.
We drive a mix of mostly city with some freeway driving. This works out to about half again better gas mileage than cars with equivalent interior space and comfort. We have driven almost 500 miles on a tank of gas, and we were nowhere near empty. In addition to exceptional gas mileage for the size, it is one of a very few cars rated as a SULEV (Super Ultra Low Emissions Vehicle) – emissions so low that only all electric (must be plugged in) or Fuel Cell (run on hydrogen, experimental and very, very expensive) cars are better.
Our Prius is about the quietest car we’ve ever been in. The only time this is not true is when accelerating quickly when the engine can roar some.
To summarize, drive it just like any other car. Step on the gas it goes, step on the brake it stops. Fill it with gas when it is empty. But there are some differences in how it behaves.
A hybrid car is powered by a gasoline engine. To get better gas mileage and lower emissions, an electric motor and a much larger than normal second battery are added to the car.
When you are decelerating, pressing on the brake, or when the gas engine does not need all of its power for moving the car, the electric motor runs backward as a generator to recharge the hybrid battery. This is called regenerative braking.
When you are accelerating, the electric motor helps the gas engine move the car.
When the car is fully warmed up the gas engine may turn off – for example when you pull up to a stop sign or light. The heat or air conditioner, lights, power steering and brakes all will continue to work as if the gas engine was running. Furthermore, in the Prius, if you take your foot off of the brake it will creep forward just like any other automatic transmission car (except the gas engine will be off). In the Prius, if you accelerate gently and are not going up hill you can even get the car up to “city” speeds (40 mph) without the gas engine starting up. Accelerate just a bit harder, and the gas engine will instantly start and without the slightest hesitation or jerk power the car.
All of this happens completely automatically. Again, you just drive it.
The first few times the gas engine stopped on us, we were a bit surprised. Would the gas engine start up by itself? Yes. Every time - flawlessly. After driving it for a few weeks you don’t even notice when the gas engine stops. Then, after a little while longer, you notice when other cars you drive just sit idling at stoplights wasting gas when they should be automatically turning off.
When designing the Prius, the primary goal was reduced emissions. Maximizing gas mileage was not the primary goal. Occasionally, you will notice this while driving it (e.g., engine runs until the engine and catalytic converter are warm, sacrificing some gas mileage).
The price of our Prius was about $4000 more than an equivalent Toyota Corolla. After Colorado tax credits and federal tax deductions we figure it will cost us only a few hundred dollars more than the equivalent Corolla. Of course we will be saving money every time we don’t fill up at the pump.
In addition to Toyota’s Prius, Honda currently sells the 2-passenger, 70 miles per gallon Insight, and the Hybrid Civic, a competitor to the Prius. Ford plans on offering a hybrid version of its Escape SUV in 2003.
My family loves our Prius. It gets excellent gas mileage, is as gentle to the environment as possible, and is a pleasure to drive (and no, I am not affiliated with Toyota in any way). The only downside to buying a hybrid that we could think of was that this is fairly new technology without a track record. Toyota helps with this by providing an 8-year warranty on the hybrid system.