What Is a Hybrid Vehicle, and How Does It Work?

  • Liz Kim has written about automobiles, both as a journalist and as a marketer, for 20 years. She enjoys giving advice about them to friends and family who want to make the most of their hard-earned dollars, and incorporates her experience as a mother and savvy consumer in everything she writes.

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Here’s a little-known fact about gas-electric hybrid technology: it is not new. Way back in 1899, when he was just 18 years old, Ferdinand Porsche (yes, that Porsche) tinkered with the technology as applied to a 4-wheel-drive vehicle called the Mixte.

Additional experimentation with hybrid powertrains occurred throughout the following century, but it wasn’t until turmoil engulfed the Middle East, fuel prices skyrocketed, and environmental consciousness broadened amongst the consumer populace, that fuel-saving hybrids became more widely available and accepted.

The first of the modern hybrid vehicles was the original Honda Insight, a 2-seater with a teardrop shape that went on sale in 1999. Toyota followed shortly thereafter with the original Prius sedan, but it wasn’t until the second-generation Prius hatchback arrived for 2004 that hybrid vehicles gained anything approaching widespread acceptance with American car buyers.

Debate continues about what the best propulsion technology for clean, efficient transportation will be in the future. For now, hybrid vehicles serve as an affordable bridge from the past to the future, providing a wide range of more efficient and less polluting alternatives to traditional gas-engine vehicles.

The Differences Between the Different Types of Hybrid Vehicles

2019 Hyundai Sonata Hybrid Gray
Hybrids don’t have to be ugly. Case in point: the 2019 Hyundai Sonata Hybrid, which is also available as a plug-in hybrid with short-distance electric operation capability. (Hyundai)

Today, there are three kinds of hybrid vehicles: light-electrified, hybrid, and plug-in hybrid.

A light-electrified, or “mild,” hybrid does not use electricity for propulsion. Instead, it uses electricity to assist propulsion or to power onboard electronics, thus reducing the gasoline engine’s mechanical effort requirements. Examples include the 48-volt system increasingly standard in redesigned Audi and Mercedes-Benz models, and the eTorque system available in the Jeep Wrangler and Ram 1500 pickup truck.

Plug-in hybrids can provide pure electric propulsion (typically for between 15 and 50 miles, depending on the vehicle), and when the battery reaches a minimum state of charge the gasoline engine starts up, allowing the vehicle to continue the journey.

Here, we’re talking about standard hybrid vehicles, which use electricity to conserve fuel, improve performance, operate the vehicle solely on electricity for very short distances at very low speeds, or all three.

Hybrids Use a Gas Engine, an Electric Motor, a Battery, and More

2018 Chevrolet Malibu Hybrid See Through Image
Hybrid cars have gasoline-fueled internal combustion engines assisted by at least one electric motor that is powered by a battery pack. A regenerative braking system and, in some systems, an integrated motor-generator, recharge the battery as you drive the car. This image shows the guts of the Chevrolet Malibu Hybrid. (Chevrolet)

So how does a hybrid vehicle work? Simply put, a hybrid uses more than one power source to propel the vehicle. Today’s hybrid cars have a conventional gasoline engine, an electric motor/generator, and a battery, working in concert to move the vehicle.

Don’t all cars have batteries? Yes, but in regular gasoline- or diesel-engine vehicles, the batteries are used to turn the car on, and to power secondary functions like the headlights, stereo, and interior lights. In hybrid vehicles, the battery is much larger and more powerful, delivering current to an electric motor that helps to get the car moving, as well as to keep it moving.

Like all batteries, a hybrid car’s battery pack can run out of juice. That’s why hybrids have regenerative braking systems, which capture the energy created during the braking process, converting it into electricity to keep the battery topped off. The more you use the brakes, the more electricity the battery stores, which is why hybrids often get better fuel economy in the city or while commuting in stop-and-go traffic, compared to cruising on the highway.

Systems equipped with an electric motor/generator can also create electricity that is fed to the battery pack, especially when the vehicle is traveling on the highway or as a driver coasts down hills or toward upcoming curves and intersections.

Hybrid powertrains perform several different tasks. Mainly, they pave the way to installation of smaller and more efficient gasoline engines, because they reduce the amount of power necessary for acceleration from a stop. In turn, this results in greater fuel efficiency and a reduction of air-polluting emissions, which are the primary reasons that people consider a hybrid vehicle.

Secondary benefits include low-speed operation in electric mode, such as when creeping along in traffic or when you’re looking for a parking spot at a shopping center. Some hybrids even use the technology to deliver greater performance, like Acura’s Sport Hybrid powertrain that’s installed in the company’s MDX, NSX, and RLX models.

Hybrids Can Offer Better Efficiency, Superior Traction, Improved Performance

2019 Acura MDX Sport Hybrid in Red
Some automakers use hybrid technology to create an all-wheel-drive system or to improve performance. Acura does both while improving the MDX midsize 3-row SUV’s fuel economy at the same time. (Acura)

Many vehicles are offered with a choice between gasoline and gas-electric hybrid powertrains. Hybrid cars typically cost more than their conventional counterparts, due to the additional research and development, technology, and engineering that’s built in to them. It’s up to you to decide whether or not the extra expense is worthwhile.

For instance, the 2019 Honda Accord Hybrid costs approximately $1,600 more than a comparably equipped gas-engine Accord. The 1.5-liter gas version gets 33 mpg in combined driving, while the hybrid gets 48 mpg. The EPA estimates that the annual fuel cost is $1,100 for the standard Accord compared to $750 for the Accord Hybrid. That means that it’ll take more than four years to realize any savings by choosing the hybrid option.

Of course, if gas prices suddenly rise from the historical lows that kicked off calendar year 2019, hybrids pay for themselves faster.

Sometimes, hybrid technology is used not only to save fuel but also to increase performance or to make a vehicle all-wheel drive instead of 2-wheel drive. The Acura MDX Sport Hybrid’s powertrain does all three, adding electric motors at each of the SUV’s rear wheels to increase performance, create an all-wheel-drive (AWD) system, and improve fuel economy.

In the MDX’s case, the fuel economy increase is not dramatic, rising from 22 mpg in combined driving for the gas engine with AWD to 27 mpg for the MDX Sport Hybrid version. The real story here is in the improvement in athleticism, the Sport Hybrid gaining 31 horsepower and a bunch of instantaneous electric motor torque to transform the SUV from a mild-mannered crossover into a suburban stealth rocket.

The chief advantage of a gas-electric hybrid vehicle is that it provides a seamless transition from life with a gasoline engine to life with a cleaner, more efficient, and sometimes more enjoyable-to-drive vehicle.

With hybrids, there are no special fuel stations to visit. There is no searching for an open charging station. There is nothing to plug in and no additional equipment to buy for your home. You can get in a hybrid and drive from Boston to Los Angeles if you want to, unconcerned about sourcing anything but gasoline.

With a hybrid vehicle, you really don’t have to change anything about your day-to-day life, enjoying a smug sense of self-satisfaction when you pass by a gas station because you’ve got a long way to go before your tank is empty.

About the Author

  • Liz Kim has written about automobiles, both as a journalist and as a marketer, for 20 years. She enjoys giving advice about them to friends and family who want to make the most of their hard-earned dollars, and incorporates her experience as a mother and savvy consumer in everything she writes.

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