Among other eco-driven buzzwords such as “fuel cell” and “hydrogen-powered,” few have come to symbolize America’s ecomentalist movement like “hybrid.” Hybrid cars use an electric motor to drive the car at low speeds and to start it from idle, meaning that the car need not idle when tooling around town. Hybrids cars have a number of inherent advantages over fuel-injected vehicles, although that number may be a bit lower than you think.
All hybrid vehicles produced as of 2010 use a combination powerplant of fuel-injected engine and electric motor, meaning that the buyer must pay for all the standard engine parts plus the hybrid drivetrain. As a basis for comparison, a fully loaded 2010 Honda Civic Hybrid costs over $3,000 more than a similarly equipped fuel-injected sedan.
Although hybrids are billed as the be-all end-all for fuel economy, the reality is a bit more complicated. True, a Honda Civic Hybrid gets 40 miles per gallon in the city and 45 on the highway, which is better than its gas counterpart’s 25/36 rating; but those are Environmental Protection Agency averages. In the real world, getting those kinds of numbers out of a hybrid require a very light foot on the throttle and conservative driving. Drive that hybrid the way you would a typical gas car and you’re unlikely to see anything near the EPA ratings. And don’t forget diesel (another type of fuel injection); a 2010 VW Golf TDi (MSRP 17,620 to $22,760 and eligible for a $1,700 tax credit as of May 2010) is rated at 30 mpg in the city and 42 on the highway.
Don’t believe the hype about the clean, green nature of hybrid technology. Yes, they produce fewer pollutants while driving than fuel injected engines but are at least as bad for the environment over a 10-year period as, say, a Hummer H2 (Autotropolis). The copper in the hybrid’s motor and the nickel/lithium in its batteries have to come from somewhere; that somewhere is a hole in the ground and a factory next to it pumping out huge quantities of carbon dioxide, sulfur dioxide and nitrogen oxides.
Hybrid technology isn’t exactly untested; Toyota has been doing it since the 1990s. However, Toyota used (and still uses) nickel-cadmium (NiCad) and lead acid batteries, which are a very well-known quantity and are known to last for many years. Some modern hybrids use lithium based batteries that are lighter and stronger than those older types, but are as-yet untested for decades worth of constant use. Hybrid cars have fuel injected engines as well as electric motors, meaning that they can suffer from all the complications of fuel injection failure as well as those associated with the hybrid drive.
Fuel economy is far less about what you drive than how you drive. Tooling around at low speed in the city, hybrids will trump almost any kind of fuel-injected engine. However, high-speeds and spirited driving may lower fuel economy to well below that of a more powerful fuel-injected engine. When the hosts of British television show Top Gear put a Prius onto their racetrack with a BMW M3 traveling the same speed, Toyota’s eco-car actually got 2 miles less to the gallon than BMW’s 414-horsepower, V8 sports car.