Hybrid Cars: Future or Fad

By Mike on 10:01 am

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There's a lot of talk about "saving" the environment these days. If you've ever read my other blog, you know how I feel about that. It's hogwash. However, the apocalyptic nightmare being put forth by the eco-nutters has increased sales of hybrid cars. There seem to be more Toyota Priuses on the road, though ironically more Hummer H2s are appearing as well.

I had a chance to look at the 2007 Toyota Prius on display last year. Local car dealers were displaying their new models at a local festival. The Prius is a mid-size sport hatch back. Modern styled with an elegant yet high tech interior. Back are the digital gauges on the dash. I remember my Mom's old Oldsmobile Delta 88 having the digital gauges back in 1991. Still, the big problem with the Prius's styling is that it looks like a hybrid. Unlike Honda who has incorporated the technology into their regular lines. It has a toy like appearance too it that will make it unappealing to some.

The car itself is powered by two motors. A 1.5l gasoline engine rated at 70bhp and a 33kw (44bhp) electric motor. This gives it a net horsepower of 110bhp, which is slightly less though still comparable that other cars in its size. The electric motor runs at 273.6v and has 258 foot-pounds of torque, more than double the turning power of the gas engine. Powering the electric is 168 nickel-metal hydride cells. NiMH cells are the same rechargable batteries used in laptops, RC toys, digital cameras, etc. Toyota claims 60mpg with this system. It saves gas by shutting off the gas engine when its idling.

The battery system in hybrids tends to be the biggest weakness of the car. They raise the initial price of the car since the cells required can cost around $10 each at least, times 168. They last for 500-1000 cycles. A cycle is a full discharge and recharge of the pack. Assuming one cycle per day and that you drive everyday, the packs will only last one and a half to three years. At a conservative estimate of $10 per cell, $1680 is a lot to be spending on maintenance for that time period. Then you have maintenance of the gasoline engine on top of that. You'll find that the money you're saving on gas will quickly be eaten away by the initial higher cost plus maintenance. Lithium based batteries in some hybrids would cost even more to replace. The ones used in cars probably cost $50-$100 per cell, costing up to $5600 to replace assuming the same voltage. Some have suggested that a hybrid can actually cost more over its lifetime to run than a full-sized SUV.

Another problem concerns fuel efficiency. Some reports claim 60mpg . However, hybrids tend to do better in city driving conditions that at highway speeds. This is because they often have smaller gear boxes and the electric motors are most efficient at low speeds. This is the opposite of pure gasoline cars which get better mileage on the highway. EPA estimates for the Prius actually put its true mileage at 46.4mpg, getting 48 city/46 highway. Much lower than the claimed 60mpg. The EPA has recently revised its testing methods to reflect real world conditions. While the Prius has the best efficiency over all, many cars such as Honda's Civic come close while having bigger, more powerful engines. In fact, my trusty 2005 Civic with a 1.7l engine gets 33mpg on average, self tested in real world conditions. While this particular model of Civic doesn't have that much more in terms or horse power, it has a higher power to weight ratio. In the end, you're not saving money running a hybrid after all, even in the long run.

So who's the Prius for. Well, if you want a hybrid, the Prius is the best way to go since its the most efficient but also the most powerful. You're not trading too much performance. However, high maintenance costs make it expensive to operate in the long run. Tax incentives are available but the initial price is still more than $1000 higher than a regular car. The Prius is best suited for those who do mostly city driving since relatively short driving distances will keep gas and maintenance costs down. For commuting, I'd recommend a regular car since you'll save on maintenance and initial purchase cost. Purchasing a regular car with a manual or auto clutch transmission will also save on gas since these usually have five to six gears rather than just four present in most automatic cars. Dual clutch transmissions will give you the best of both worlds.

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