As seen on:

SMH Logo News Logo

Call 1300 303 181

Hybrid or Traditional? Should you

Growing awareness of the environmental effects of greenhouse gases—more so than concern over rising petrol prices—triggered initiatives to produce hybrid cars. Honda’s concern for the environment is driving a current offer to plant eighteen trees for every Civic Hybrid sold!

Today, many buyers are looking to hybrids for potential fuel savings, but hybrid cars are currently more expensive overall than petrol equivalents, and this is likely to be the case for some time to come.

Currently Toyota and Honda lead in hybrid car manufacture. Some manufacturers have chosen not to invest in hybrid technology at all, but to explore biofuels, fuel-cell, and hydrogen power instead. Biofuel vehicles are popular in some countries. In Brazil, cars can be 100 percent bio-fuelled, running on ethanol made from sugar cane. Success running cars on fuel-cell technology is thought to be at least fifteen years away, and hydrogen cars are also a way off, if only because it will likely be a while before you will find hydrogen fuelling stations around every corner. Nevertheless, Mazda and BMW are enthusiastic about the potential of hydrogen and are investing heavily in the technology.

Sanyo and Volkswagen are teaming up to develop lithium-ion batteries, which they hope will power the next generation of hybrid cars.

Hybrid technology uses a conventional petrol engine supplemented by an electric power plant. By using electric power to deliver extra power or torque, you can use a smaller and more economical petrol engine. In larger cars, hybrids deliver better fuel economy without sacrificing performance.

Hybrid cars carry rechargeable batteries to power the electric motors, so they don’t need to be ‘plugged in’ to recharge. They recharge by capturing energy from the vehicle itself, via regenerative braking systems, or directly from the engine. Sharing work between the electric motor and petrol engine lowers fuel consumption by up to forty percent over a comparable petrol-fuelled model.

Hybrid car designs vary. Generally, though, the petrol engine shuts down when the car is idling. The batteries cut in to keep air conditioning running. When you drive off, the petrol engine might restart, although at times the car can run on battery power alone.

Battery power is quite limited, but in city driving, the use of battery power can reduce fuel consumption considerably. It can also assist in acceleration. On the open road, however, the hybrid offers little advantage. The petrol engine must be running constantly to produce enough power to operate the car at freeway speeds.

Hybrid cars feel quite different to petrol-fuelled vehicles. They generally start up in electric mode, then the petrol engine cuts in. The ‘Hybrid Synergy Drive‘ system, developed by Toyota, makes this transition quite seamless. You feel only the slightest vibration. In a Honda, though, the change is quite noticeable, and the frequent engine stopping and starting in suburban driving can be quite annoying.

The most significant drawback with hybrid cars is cost. There are some fuel savings, but you have to cover a lot of kilometres before these savings start to compensate for the higher purchase price. With a price tag about $8000 higher than its petrol-driven brother, you would need to drive a Honda Civic Hybrid over 220,000 km to generate enough fuel savings (at $1.50 per litre of petrol) to recoup the extra purchase cost. That is going to take most motorists more than 11 years!

Hybrids haven’t been around long enough to determine accurately what their resale value is. And their service life is also not yet established, although manufacturers say the battery pack should last at least ten years. Early reports from fleet users suggest that battery lifespan may exceed 300,000 km. Manufacturers are offering long warranties on battery packs, and say replacement claims have been minimal.

Special low rolling resistance tyres on hybrids are more costly to replace than conventional tyres, but overall there are few components that add significantly to servicing and maintenance costs.

Certainly, hybrids produce lower emissions than comparable petrol engine vehicles, so they will suit those with a strong eco-conscience. And in the right driving conditions, they will save on fuel. But it will take many years for the savings to compensate for that significantly higher price tag, and overall Motoring Associations report that hybrids cost between $5 and $50 per week more than their petrol-driven equivalents.

A hybrid car might be worth considering if you do most of your driving in urban areas and lots of stop-start trips in traffic or in areas where traffic lights proliferate. If you are after a sports sedan, or if most of your driving is on the open road, a hybrid won’t suit.