By Peter Valdes-Dapena, CNN Business
With gas prices exceeding $5 a gallon in many places, drivers may wish they had a hybrid vehicle. In fact, many owners of newer vehicles may already be driving hybrids and not even know it. Hybrid technology is making its way into all kinds of vehicles that aren’t advertised as hybrids.
For automakers, that’s often part of the point.
EElectric vehicle sales continue to grow every year and more companies are announcing plans to scrap gasoline engines altogether. But high fuel costs and the relatively high prices of all-electric cars mean that hybrid cars can still help save money. And customers buy hybrids in large numbers, even if they don’t always realize they’re buying a hybrid.
The Legacy of the Prius
The Toyota Prius sent car buyers to dealers in the early 2000s, when gasoline prices peaked and a recession had them looking for fuel-efficient alternatives. But those waiting lists for the Prius diminished over the years as more hybrids hit the market. Toyota Prius sales peaked in the United States in 2012, with more than 230,000 units sold. In 2019, that number shrank to just over 69,000.
But at the same time, hybrid technology has become more and more common. And while all-electric vehicles have a certain cultural cachet, automakers are often cautious about declaring their petrol-electric hybrids. While many hybrids are proudly billed as such – the Hyundai Tucson Hybrid and Ford Escape Hybrid, for example – other, often vehicles with mild hybrid systems, only include that information in technical documents or the owner’s manual.
Hybrid market share has more than doubled since 2017, from 2.0% of the market to 5.1% of the market, according to data from the automotive website Edmunds.com. But that’s not true for all hybrid vehicles, said Edmunds.com analyst Ivan Drury. It’s impossible to know exactly how many hybrid trucks, cars and SUVs are sold because they’re only counted as hybrids in industry statistics when the manufacturer calls it a hybrid itself, or gives it a separate model name, Drury said. Often, car manufacturers don’t specifically mention hybrid systems, any more than any other engine or transmission function. That means a Toyota Rav4 Hybrid might count and a Toyota Tundra i-Force Max pickup, which is also a hybrid, might not.
The differences in how hybrid vehicles are marketed – sometimes with a chrome “Hybrid” badge on the back and sometimes with barely any mention at all – could be related to how the technology is perceived by different types of customers.
“There may be a bit of a stigma attached to the word ‘hybrid,’” said Bill Visnic, editor-in-chief of the Society of Automotive Engineers.
Some car buyers worry that hybrid performance could mean “minor” performance, he said.
When people think of hybrids, they often think of the icon of the type, the Toyota Prius. The Prius, and other similar hybrids, have batteries that store energy while the car is moving. That electricity is then used to power an electric motor that can power the wheels at low speeds — or even at high speeds if the accelerator isn’t pressed hard — and give an extra boost during acceleration. But modern hybrids have moved beyond the technology of the Prius.
From “mild” to “full” hybrids
Many modern cars have so-called “mild hybrid” systems. These vehicles have smaller, lighter batteries and a less powerful electric motor than so-called full hybrids. The electric motor generally cannot power the car on its own, but it can provide assistance when the vehicle starts off from a standstill. The gas engine still does most of the work, but the electric motor provides an extra push that eases the work of the gas engine. Because of their smaller batteries, mild-hybrid technology is easier to fit in a vehicle without taking up cargo or passenger space for battery packs. They also don’t add as much cost to the vehicle, making them easier to sell to buyers who aren’t entirely focused on fuel economy.
Mild hybrid systems can be found in surprising places, such as some Jeep Wrangler and Ram 1500 full-size pickup models. The optional mild hybrid eTorque system in the Ram 1500 shuts off the truck’s gas engine when the truck comes to a stop, allowing the truck to run off its battery while stationary for up to approximately 10 minutes. (Not every vehicle that shuts off the engine when stationary, however, is necessarily a mild hybrid.) When the driver releases the brake pedal, an electric motor can move the truck forward for less than half a second while the gasoline engine restarts.
The mild hybrid system delivers up to two extra miles per gallon, especially in the city, according to the manufacturer.
Other cars have Prius-style fully hybrid systems, but don’t market them that way. The Toyota Tundra i-Force Max, for example, is an all-hybrid pickup, but you’d never know it looking at it. He can turn off his engine and sometimes use only his electric motor. But even on the meter box there is no indication that the truck has a hybrid system. There is a gauge that shows the amount of power the electric motor has, but it is simply labeled “Max”.
The Tundra i-Force Max doesn’t make much difference to its hybrid nature, said Craig Herring, a Toyota engineer, as potential customers showed no interest in buying a hybrid during market research. But they were interested in more pulling and pulling power without impacting fuel economy. The Tundra’s hybrid system is tuned for maximum power rather than primary fuel consumption. In the Tundra range, the i-Force Max takes the place of what could have been a thirstier V8 engine option for customers wanting maximum pulling and pulling capabilities. However, with its emphasis on power, the Tundra Hybrid is less fuel efficient than Ford’s F-150 Hybrid, but it delivers slightly more horsepower and torque.
Some vehicles, such as the new Audi A3 compact sedan, are somewhere between mild and full hybrids. It’s technically a mild hybrid, but it’s not that mild. As with a full hybrid, an electric motor can propel the relatively small and light A3, Audi’s entry-level model, at low speeds or when rolling out on flat roads or downhill. Similar technology is available on larger Audi models in Europe, said Anthony Garbis, head of product planning for Audi of America, but it was felt that US customers wouldn’t appreciate it on those larger, more luxurious cars.
“We’ve always found it a bit strange to have your A8 [full-size luxury sedan] coast along the highway,” he said. “So with the A3 it seemed like the right target audience, the right price and the right technology to introduce the rollout feature.”
And with Audi moving towards an all-electric lineup in just over a decade, there is now less focus on this kind of technology, he said. Now Audi is looking ahead to when its cars will not have a petrol engine at all.
How to find a secret hybrid
If you’re wondering if a car you’re considering has mild hybrid technology, a visit to the car manufacturer’s website will usually tell you. Or you can just Google it or go straight to online resources like Consumer Reports (subscription required), KBB.com† Edmunds.comor, if you really want to dig into the details, CarandDriver.com†
If you’re just looking for the best fuel economy, no matter what technology is involved, the Environmental Protection Agency’s fueleconomy.gov is always the best place to start.
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