Hybrid/electric vehicles range in size from compact two-seaters to nine-passenger full-size SUVs, but most can be categorized as compact or midsize sedans. Many hybrids, like the Ford Fusion Hybrid, are based on conventional vehicles, while some are unique designs like the Honda CR-Z or Toyota Prius.
Generally, a hybrid vehicle can be as much as 20 percent more expensive than its counterpart powered by a conventional gasoline engine. Electric or part-time electric models cost even more to purchase. The cheapest hybrid costs a little less than $20,000, while the most expensive luxury model costs more than $100,000. Some advanced hybrid and electric vehicles like the Chevrolet Volt and Nissan Leaf are eligible for federal and state tax credits that lower the purchase cost.
Hybrids vary in specification, but there are two general types. Pure hybrids deliver significantly increased gas mileage — 40-50 mpg — at a significantly higher purchase price. Mild hybrids deliver less dramatic improvements in fuel efficiency, but for a less dramatic cost. In addition, plug-in hybrids are beginning to appear in the marketplace, and these more expensive vehicles deliver short-range all-electric operation combined with long-range operation that depends on a gas engine. All-electric vehicles are also in the marketplace as well, and they trade a higher purchase price for lower running costs. In addition, the cruising range of an electric vehicle is also an issue.
In general, hybrid vehicles are as safe as all-gasoline cars, although concerns have been raised about accidents that could damage the batteries in a way that might lead to a chemical spill or electric shocks. However, hybrids have been on the market for more than a decade and such accidents have not been reported. In addition, manufacturers say they have taken steps to educate emergency responders so they can help accident victims without risking injury.
Most full hybrids are offered with high-tech features like automatic climate control, navigation systems, an iPod interface, keyless start systems and Bluetooth capability. Nifty readouts that show you in-depth information about fuel economy and the car's power flow are commonplace. Mild hybrids are less likely to emphasize the electric side of their nature since they don't actually run on electricity.
Like most compact and midsize sedans, hybrids typically can transport four adults in reasonable comfort. Most hybrids have seats for five people, though Honda's CR-Z sport hybrid seats only two and the Chevy Volt seats four. Some hybrid SUVs can carry seven or eight passengers. In general, the packaging of a hybrid's battery pack can affect the passenger configuration, the Chevrolet Volt being a notable example.
A hybrid based on a conventional sedan might lose between 3 and 5 cubic feet of trunk space in order to accommodate the requisite battery pack. Likewise, a hybrid SUV might lose some storage space under the cargo floor to accommodate the batteries. Payload capacity will also be reduced because of the impact of a heavy battery pack as well. Dedicated hybrid and all-electric models are packaged to minimize any compromises in passenger space and cargo volume, but payload capacity can still be an issue.
There are several different strategies for hybrid power. A hybrid might switch off the conventional engine at a stop and substitute electric propulsion for a certain distance, ranging from across the intersection to across town. It might switch off the engine at a stop and then bring it to life again when it's time to go, saving a little bit of fuel. It might add an electric assist to a small engine under acceleration, or shut down the engine while coasting down a hill. Hybrid now means a greater range of performance alternatives, so it's important to understand what you're paying for and what you're getting in return.
The most important question has to do with "payback," which is the calculation of the length of time it will take cheaper running costs to match the increased purchase cost, which might range from several years to decades depending on fuel prices. In terms of warranties, the carmakers usually offer longer coverage for the hybrid-specific components (typically about 8 years), so you're covered if something goes wrong with the batteries or electric motor. The cost of replacing a battery pack varies, although it's not as expensive as consumers once feared.