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Buy a Hybrid or Electric Car?

By Larry Carley
copyright AA1Car.com

Should you buy a hybrid or electric car? The answer depends on the type of driving you do. If most of your driving is short trip commuting, city driving or suburban shopping, a high mileage hybrid or electric car makes a lot of sense. So much fuel is wasted sitting in traffic and waiting for stop lights to change. A stop-start system on a hybrid car that turns the engine off saves fuel that would otherwise be wasted going nowhere. Depending on how much time you spend sitting, your overall fuel economy may improve 5 to 10 percent with a hybrid stop-start system. And if the car is a full hybrid like Toyota Prius that starts moving in electric only mode, your fuel savings can be even greater. That's why hybrids get such high city fuel economy numbers.

Cadillac ELR extended range electric car cutaway
2014 Cadillac ELR.

One type of vehicle that makes a LOT of sense environmentally is the extended range or plug-in electric car. Some current examples include the Chevy Volt and Toyota Prius Plug-in hybrid. Cadillac also has its own plug-in ELR extended range electric car that borrows much of the powertrain technology from the Chevy Volt. What's so great about these cars? They offer the best of both worlds: the fuel savings of a straight electric driving mode with the ability to take longer trips using regular gasoline. The Chevy Volt has an electric driving range of about 35 to 40 miles, which roughly translates into 100 to 110 miles per gallon gasoline equivalent (MPGe). The Fiskar Karma goes about 40 to 50 miles before the gasoline engine takes over.

The only reason people are not standing in line to buy these vehicles is because the sticker prices are relatively high: $38,000 MSRP on the Chevy Volt, $32,000 on the Prius Plug-in and $102,000 on the Fiskar Karma! To help offset these prices, the federal government has been offering tax credits of up to $7,500 depending on the year and model. Some states are also offering their own tax incentives to switch to green vehicles. When the tax credits are deducted from the sales price, these cars are still expensive but no more expensive than many luxury cars that don't get anywhere near the fuel economy of a plug-in electric car.

The economic payback will depend on the number of miles driven, the cost of the vehicle and the ever rising cost of gasoline. For high mileage drivers, the payback can come fairly quickly. For low mileage drivers, it may take many years (if ever). Even so, every gallon of gasoline you don't have to buy is one less gallon consumed. That means less demand for oil, less carbon being dumped into the atmosphere to contribute to climate change and global warming, and less profit for Big Oil.

I have yet to meet a Toyota Prius or Chevy Volt owner who is not completely satisfied and outright enthusiastic about their car! Many of the people who own and drive these cars are real zealots about promoting the benefits of hybrids. And if most of their driving is 40 miles a day or less, they almost NEVER have to buy gasoline if they drive a plug-in hybrid like the Chevy Volt! That's something to think about the next time you pass a filling station and wince at the latest jump in prices. If you were driving a Chevy Volt or other plug-in electric, you could thumb your nose at them and drive right by without having to drain your bank account to fill your fuel tank.

For a Chevy Volt owners perspective on what it's really like to own and drive a Volt, Click Here for Richard Smith's My Electric Vehicle Journey.

Chevy Volt
The Chevy Volt is an extended range plug-in hybrid (Click for Larger Image)
Most owners are VERY enthusiastic about their Volts!

Chevy Volt Charging Connector
Plugging in an electric hybrid is a LOT cheaper than pumping gas.(Click for Larger Image)
A single charge costs about $1.25 and lasts 35 to 40 miles in electric mode

Electric Cars

What about pure electric cars? Tesla has hit a home run with their Model S. With the larger 85 kwh battery, the car has an EPA estimated driving range of 265 miles (although most real world drivers get about 230 miles per charge). Other electric cars such as the Nissan Leaf, Mitsubishi iMiEV and Ford Focus Electric typically have a shorter driving range of around 70 miles on a charge (which is still adequate for most commuters).

The limiting factor that determines driving range remains the battery. The lithium ion battery packs in full electric cars are EXPENSIVE (an estimated $18,000 for the Nissan Leaf battery, which means Nissan has to heavily subsidize the cost of these vehicles to keep the car affordable). The batteries are also slow to recharge, taking up to 18 to 20 hours with a 110 volt outlet for a full charge. Tier II 220 volt chargers can reduce the charge time to 3 to 4 hours. Even so, that's a long wait if you need to go somewhere and the battery is low.

Pure electric cars such as the Tesla Model S, Nissan Leaf, Mitsubithi iMiEV and Ford Focus Electric are selling in limited numbers, and are often purchased as a second commuter car or errand car, not as the primary means of transportation. Except for the Tesla Model S, these other electric cars make great city cars but may not have enough range for surburban or rural drivers. They create "range anxiety" for many drivers. You worry about running out of battery power before you can find a plug to top off or recharge your battery. If you do run out of juice, and there is no plug or charging station nearby, you're looking at an expensive tow to the nearest power source.

The Tesla S is a much more practical electric car with its superior driving range, full sedan size and good looks. But these cars are high priced luxury models that are beyond the average family budget. The sticker price for a new Tesla Model S is nearly $90,000.

The Environmental Debate Over Electric Cars

There is no question that electric vehicles themselves are environmentally green and clean. A zero emissions vehicle has no tailpipe to spew hydrocarbons, carbon monoxide, carbon dioxide, oxides of nitrogen or sulfur compounds into the atmosphere. They use no oil or gasoline. But that does not mean they are good for the environment.

The problem is that most of the electricity that is used to charge the batteries in electric vehicles is produced by fossil fueled power plants. So although an electric vehicle produces no pollutants itself, the power plant that generates the electricity to charge the battery can be a major polluter.

According to the U.S. Energy Information Administration, about 67 percent of the electricity produced in the U.S. (2014) was from fossil fuels (coal, natural gas, and petroleum). Coal is about 10 times dirtier than natural gas.

Here is a summary of how electricity is generated in the U.S.:

Coal 39%
Natural gas 27%
Nuclear 19%
Hydropower 6%
Renewables 7%
Wind 4.4%
Biomass 1.7%
Geothermal 0.4%
Solar 0.4%

If the power source for charging an electric car battery is nuclear, hydropower, wind, solar or geothermal, there are no generator emissions associated with operating the vehicle. Consequently, there is a net reduction in emissions. But if the electricity comes from a coal, natural gas or oil-fired power plant, an electric vehicle may not be so clean after all.

Cold Weather Concerns

Cold weather can significantly reduce the driving range of an electric vehicle. Low temperatures can reduce battery output. Heating the passenger compartment and seats, however, sucks even more power from the battery. Gas and diesel-powered vehicles use the engine's waste heat to warm the passenger compartment. Hot coolant from the engine is circulated through the heater core. But since a pure electric vehicle has no internal combustion engine, all the heat for the passenger compartment has to come from an electrical resistance heater. This can reduce driving range 20 to 30 percent or more depending on heater usage and how cold it is.

Hybrid Vehicle Ownership

Except for some flap over unintended acceleration, the Toyota Prius has had a pretty good reputation for reliability. Like most hybrids, the hybrid components are covered by an 8 year, 100,000 mile warranty (10 years/150,000 miles in California). Consequently, if you are the first owner you should have little repair expense to worry about. The most expensive item to replace is the hybrid battery pack. In Toyota's case the battery pack has proven to be very long-lived and reliable. There are Toyota Prius cabs prowling the streets in many large cities that have over 300,000 miles on the original battery!

The only hybrid vehicles that have proved troublesome to date are the Saturn VUE hybrid (LOTS of electrical issues!), and the Honda Civic hybrid (premature battery failures). Click Here for more info about Honda's hybrid battery problems. Other than these exceptions, most hybrid owners are very satisfied with their cars and would buy a hybrid again.

Hybrid Repairs

If a hybrid or electric vehicle needs repairs that involve the hybrid powertrain, transmission, hybrid battery or control system, it should be taken to a new car dealership for service (or the nearest dealer that has the proper training and equipment to service their vehicles as some dealers may not be certified to work on these vehicles). The other option is to find a qualified aftermarket repair facility that has had hybrid training and experience. Most of these vehicles are beyond the average technician's ability to accurately (and safely) diagnose and repair hybrid-related problems. Advanced diagnostics requires a factory level scan tool or an aftermarket professional grade scan tool with OEM-equivalent software capabilities. An inexpensive DIY scan tool can read basic codes and other system data, but cannot access many of the built-in self-tests in the vehicle.

Ordinary maintenance such as oil changes and non-hybrid repairs such as brakes, tires, engine, etc. can usually be performed by any competent service facility.

hybrid sales chart
Strong hybrid and elecric vehicle sales growth was predicted to continue in the years ahead.
But when gas prices plunged in 2015 and 2016, sales failed to achieve the projections shown here.

Hybrid Vehicles Selling Well

In 2013, the auto makers sold over 15.5 million cars and light trucks. Of these, 3.8 percent or nearly 600,000 vehicles were hybrids, plug-in hybrids or electric vehicles. Those numbers are up from 3.4% of sales in 2012 (487,480 hybrids & plug-in electrics sold), and a big jump over the 284,064 hybrids sold in 2011.

The following information was provided to AA1Car for this article by Craig Van Batenburg, the "go to" guy for hybrid vehicle training. Information about Craig's Automotive Career Development Center (ACDC) can be found at www.fixhybrid.com, or by calling 800 939 7909. Here's what Craig reported on hybrid vehicle sales for 2012:

Toyota Hybrids

Toyota's Commitment to Hybrid Technology paid big dividends in 2012. It was a record year for industry hybrid sales. Sales nearly doubled, approaching almost half a million. Toyota and Lexus account for 70 percent of those sales. Toyota and Lexus hybrids were up more than 83 percent for the year. The Prius family was up nearly 75 percent to 236,000 sold. About 15 percent of all models were hybrids.

Honda Hybrids

The FIT EV is here (CA) as Honda gets ready for Pure Electric cars. The 2014 Plug-in Accord went on sale in January with lots of new Honda HEV technology. Honda will be introducing a two motor system in the Civic as the old IMA system goes away. ACDC will offer web training on the 2014 Accord Plug-in hybrid.

General Motors Hybrids and Electrics

The VOLT sales in 2012 were over 22,000 up from 7,000 the year before. GM has actually sold more Chevy Volts than Corvettes since January 2012!

The Spark EV (maybe a bad name!!) is a pure EV and will go on sale this year. It's GM's answer to the Nissan Leaf.

Cadillac is getting a version of the VOLT for big spenders, the Cadillac ELR. It's a luxury version of the Chevy Volt with a higher level of performance (though the electric range and fuel economy is about the same).

Cadillac ELR
2014 Cadillac ELR extended range electric car (Click for Larger Image).

Chevy Spark electric car
The Chevy Spark will be GM's small pure electric car (Click for Larger Image).

Ford Electrics

The C-Max is a hybrid only and the C-Max Energi is a Plug-in version of the same. The C-Max Energi has a larger battery, can go 21 miles in full electric mode and at speeds up to 47 mph or faster on the battery alone, and gets 110 MPGe in the city. The Energi also has one of the longest combined driving ranges of any plug-in electric hybrid, delivering up to 620 miles on a full battery and tank of fuel.

Both versions of the C-Max are selling very well. It replaced the Escape HEV. The Escape was still on sale in 2013 but no HEV system. The Fusion was completely re-designed for 2013 and uses the C-Max hybrid drivetrain. The Fusion is also available as a Plug-in (Fusion Energi). Both now have separate inverters (Power electronics boxes) from the CVT. Very Toyota like. Also, no more NiMH batteries as Ford has gone to Li-ion.

Ford C-Max Energi electric car cutaway
Ford C-Max Energi 2000 electric car.

Nissan Electrics

The 2013 Leaf has a new EV system (same battery) and a lower price ($22,000 after a $7,500 federal tax credit).

Hyundai / Kia Hybrids

They beat Honda in sales last year in the HEV market. These cars share the same system.

How Fuel Prices Affect Hybrid and Electric Vehicle Sales

There is a direct correlation between fuel prices and the types of vehicles consumers buy. When prices are high, they buy smaller, more fuel efficient vehicles, hybrids and electrics. When fuel prices drop, as they have in 2015 and 2016, consumers tend to buy larger, less fuel efficient vehicles and fewer hybrids and electric vehicles. Consequently, hybrid and electric vehicle sales have declined somewhat in 2015 and 2016 in spite of the fact that there are not more hybrid and electric models than ever before.

Fuel prices also affect the resale value of used cars, including hybrids and electrics. When gas prices are high, nobody wants a gas hog so the resale value of large vehicles drops while that of smaller vehicles, hybrids and electrics go up. Likewise, when fuel prices drop, hybrid and electric vehicles are less appealing so their resale value declines.

Related Articles:

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Hybrid Service Tips

Hybrid Vehicle Safety Hazards

Honda Civic Hybrid Battery Problems

Toyota Prius Diagnostics

Toyota Prius Hybrid, First Generation

Toyota Unintended Acceleration: Possible Causes

Toyota Prius Brake Recall

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