Hybrid Electric Vehicle Shopping Considerations

Hybrid vehicles continue to grow in importance, offering consumers the best of two possible worlds: vehicle electrification and extended range. By making use of electric motors and a gasoline engine, a hybrid electric vehicle ensures that you can take that long trip without having to plug-in someplace and wait hours for a recharge.

The Toyota Prius is synonymous with "hybrid," but there are other models for you to consider. Read on for tips on how to buy a hybrid electric vehicle, representing one of the most fuel efficient and cleanest car segments sold today.

General Definitions

What is a hybrid vehicle? Well, for starters, it is officially called a hybrid electric vehicle, one of several types of vehicles that offer at least some kind of vehicle electrification.

All hybrids make use of two fuel systems. Today, those systems are a gas-powered internal combustion engine and electric motors. The gas engine is paired with a transmission to turn the wheels. The electric motor may make use of a generator and regenerative braking to produce electricity that is sent to and stored in a battery system. Such systems original used nickel-metal hydride (NiMH) batteries, but in recent years most manufacturers have switched to lithium-ion (li-ion) or lithium-polymer (li-poly) batteries that are lighter weight and more efficient.

Plug-in or Not

Traditional hybrid vehicles receive electricity onboard, with no need to plug-in to an outlet to draw current. Today, your hybrid vehicle options have expanded as there are models that can be plugged in. Models, including the Chevrolet Volt, the Ford C-MAX Energi and the Toyota Prius Plug-In Hybrid, do plug in and offer an advantage of running on electric-only power longer than traditional hybrids. If your trips are mostly local, you’ll put some serious space between gas station visits, lowering your fuel costs and reducing the amount of emissions dumped into the air.

Another advantage of a plug-in vehicle is that there are tax deduction benefits offered, something that traditional hybrids no longer have. Your tax benefit is determined by the federal government and depends largely on the vehicle you select as well as your tax bracket. Buy a Chevrolet Volt and you may be eligible for a $7,500 tax credit; with the PHEV Prius, your tax benefit is up to $2,500. State and local benefits may also be available.

Cost Premium

When buying a hybrid, you’ll pay more for this vehicle then you would for a comparably equipped gasoline model. The difference is typically from $3,000, but you may notice cars that are priced at least $5,000 higher. What you need to do here is compare equipment levels. For instance, the Ford Fusion Hybrid comes in about $8,000 more than the base Fusion model. On closer inspection the difference is about $2,500 as the Fusion Hybrid offers a trim level comparable to the Fusion SEL.

With a cost premium in play, you’ll want to determine how long it will take for you to recoup the extra cost. One way to figure that out is to compare the fuel economy between like models. The example of the Ford Fusion is a good one — the 2012 edition gets 23 mpg city, 33 mpg highway for a combined 26 mpg. The Fusion Hybrid gets 41 mpg city, 36 mpg for a combined 39 mpg. If you drive 15,000 miles per year, then your gas cost at $3.50 per gallon would be calculated as follows:

15,000 miles divided by 26 mpg equals 577 gallons. Multiply 577 by $3.50 per gallon and your annual fuel costs are $2,020.

With the Fusion Hybrid you’ll divide 15,000 by 39 and get 385 gallons. Multiply 385 by $3.50 and your annual fuel costs are $1,348. That means you’ll save $672 per year. If your hybrid has a $5,000 price premium than it will take you nearly 7 and one-half years to recoup your cost. Clearly, buy a hybrid if you expect to keep it at least that long and you think that gas prices will only go higher.

What Size

Most hybrid models come in smaller sizes, but there are some vehicles such as the full-size Chevrolet Tahoe SUV and the big Lexus LS 600h L sedan that are also sold. Familiarize yourself with the various models offered and consider only those that meet your needs.

Some hybrid models lose as much as 20 percent of trunk storage capacity as the battery pack juts into the trunk. Other hybrids take away rear seating space for the same reason.

Most hybrids are paired with a single-speed transmission, although some have regular automatic or continuously variable transmissions. You will want to test drive the models that interest you, taking it out on the open road and driving it extensively around town. Learn if the power offered is sufficient for your needs — hybrids get horsepower from both energy sources, therefore you won’t lack the get up and go to get moving with such vehicles.

HEV Considerations

Every hybrid vehicle comes with a hybrid warranty, covering the electrical parts including motors, generators and battery packs. By law, the minimum warranty for the battery system alone is 8 years or 100,000 miles, whichever comes first. Some states, such as California and New Jersey, mandate a 10-year or 150,000 mile warranty. In any case, familiarize yourself with the maintenance procedures for a hybrid and follow these carefully, to ensure that you enjoy the maximum benefit of owning one.

Resources

FuelEconomy.gov: Federal Tax Credits for Plug-In Hybrids — http://www.fueleconomy.gov/feg/taxphevb.shtml

U.S. Department of Energy: Alternative Fuels Data Center — http://www.afdc.energy.gov/

Chris Joseph is a freelance writer and media consultant currently working with AutoFair.

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