A hybrid car is one that uses two engines to generate power: an old-fashioned internal combustion engine and an electric engine. Their partnership was born by market force. High fuel prices and increasing environmental concerns created a market for an electric vehicle at a time when full-electric vehicles weren’t yet viable; they took a long time to charge and couldn’t go very far once they did. The problem of charging the battery is solved, however, if it can be charged by an internal combustion engine you’re already using anyway. So, voila, automakers could now offer a vehicle that ran partially on electricity without any sacrifice to usability.
But How Does It Work?
A typical hybrid car, like the Toyota Prius, is designed to use the electric engine during driving scenarios when a gasoline engine is least efficient. These would be times such as idling, parking, slow driving, etc. An electric engine works by drawing electricity from a battery and through a controller to a turbine that spins, creating mechanical power. A Prius’ electric engine is powerful enough to handle those light driving tasks, so the gasoline engine only kicks on when the car reaches 15 mph. Depending how a car is used and driven, this can make a big difference in fuel economy.
Gasoline engines, on the other hand, are big air pumps. They work by sucking in air, mixing it with fuel in a compressed area, and causing an explosion that results in energy that spins a crank. They are at their most efficient when they’re at a consistent cruising speed. So above 15 mph, only the gasoline engine is used. The electric engine shuts down and the spinning power generated by the gas engine is used to both power the vehicle and recharge the electric motor’s battery.
The switch from electric power to gas power allows the hybrid vehicle to function like any other gas-powered vehicle on the road.
This style of hybrid vehicle makes fuel economy the top priority, and is therefore typically equipped with a small, low-powered gasoline engine. This is the style most familiar to contemporary consumers, but some manufacturers combine gasoline and electric power in performance-oriented ways.
The new Acura NSX, for example, uses a gasoline engine and three electric motors (one for the rear wheels and one apiece for the front), resulting in an all-wheel drive configuration that goes from zero to 60 in 2.7 seconds.
Because electricity can be generated in so many different ways, and because electric drive systems can be mounted in various configurations, each hybrid design functions a little differently. Regardless of how they achieve it though, hybrid cars seek to use the electric and gas engines to balance out each other’s strengths and weaknesses.
Ready to buy a hybrid? You can use our Best Price Program to save thousands. Interested in doing more research? You can check out our hybrid rankings. We've listed the top16 hybrid cars on our site below. You can read reviews and see where they rank in the class.
Rankings as of 10/21/2016, click here to see updated rankings