Hybrid hype: What is it and why should you care?

Over the past couple of months, several car brands have begun to offer new, innovative hybrid vehicles in the market. We’ve seen offerings from luxury brands like BMW and Lexus, veteran brands like Toyota and Honda, and new players like Geely and BYD.

Yet with lots of flashy marketing and very little explanation, many are left to wonder just exactly what a hybrid car is. Is it complicated to drive? Is it difficult to maintain? Why do some come with plugs and chargers? The answers are actually more simple than they seem.

How does it work?

The innerworkings of a hybrid car: engine in front, battery at the back.

Hybrid cars are called that because they use a hybrid mix of gasoline engines and electric motors to move. Hybrid cars are designed to be a transition vehicle from conventional gasoline cars like a Corolla to fully-electric ones like a Tesla. By using both a gasoline engine and electric motor, it can easily switch between the two, or even use both at the same time to save fuel and travel farther.

Because they use a gasoline engine, you still have to fill up the tank of a hybrid car to get going. After all, it’s the gasoline engine that charges the batteries in the car, which then powers the electric motor. All of this is managed by onboard computers so that all you have to do is step on the throttle or brake, and steer, while the car manages everything else.

How do I charge the batteries?

Hybrids come with energy monitors to show what's powering the vehicle.

The batteries are charged automatically. Once the battery runs low, the gasoline engine is turned on. Part of that power is used to move the car, part of it is used to charge the batteries. We’re not talking about the regular battery you usually find under the hood. These hybrids use bigger, high-tech batteries hidden under the cabin’s floor. They're low maintenance so there’s no need to worry about them. Hybrids always have a dial or gauge that show how much power is stored.

The batteries can be charged in many ways. They can be charged directly by plugging into a regular wall socket. They can be charged more quickly with a quick charger (that you can buy and install at home, or connect to in certain places). It’s also automatically charged when the gasoline engine is running. Finally, the batteries can also be charged when the car is coasting to a stop.

There’s no need to worry about the battery level because the car monitors it all the time. It can be recharged even at half capacity or close to full. It uses every opportunity (from accelerating, to coasting, to idling) to charge the batteries. All you have to worry about is the fuel level.

How is it better than a normal car?

Hybrids will have a conventional engine and electric motor under the hood.

Everything about a hybrid is designed to be fuel efficient. Hybrids cars use special gasoline engines designed to consume less fuel than normal engines. They’re paired with continuously variable automatic transmissions to make the most out of the least amount of power.

Because these batteries can get heavy, some of these cars are built with lightweight materials like alloys, aluminum, and even carbon fiber. Some even go the extra mile, using aerodynamic bodies, low rolling resistance tires, and lightweight wheels to be even more efficient.

You can expect the average hybrid to achieve anywhere from 14 – 18 km/L without even trying. Even in heavy traffic. Better still, depending on the driving, hybrids can travel at least 600 kilometers on one full tank. That's the distance from Manila to Baguio and back.

Hybrids are also faster than their regular gasoline counterparts. Yes, it’s true. They use smaller engines to make space for an electric motor. But that means the car has two power sources instead of one, which can be used at the same time. Simply floor the gas pedal and the car will do the rest. You’ll see just how fast a hybrid can go.

How is it different from an electric car?

The Hyundai Ioniq, available as a hybrid and pure electric.

Hybrids still have a gasoline engine. That means you don’t have to worry about where the next charging station is. When the battery is low, it will switch to the gasoline engine automatically, letting you continue driving without interruption.

Electric cars don’t have a backup motor. Once the battery is used up, they won’t be able to run. To be fair, they can go as far as 400 kilometers on one charge. They will usually have a program designed to warn drivers how far they can go with the battery. However, they will need a charger, whether supercharger or socket-based, to recharge. That means waiting for hours while it recharges.

Is it hard to drive?

The interior of the Geely Azkarra hybrid.

Not at all. As long as you can drive a conventional gasoline car with an automatic, you can drive a hybrid. There’s no special class or briefing needed. Because the hybrid is designed to manage itself automatically, all you have to worry about is driving the hybrid like you would a normal car. The only difference is how much quieter it is, especially when it’s running on pure electric mode.

Hybrids operate, by default, on hybrid mode. However, they also give you the option to choose pure electric, or high power mode to match the needs of your trip.

How does it handle traffic?

Quite well. Hybrids were designed especially for busy cities with heavy traffic. When at a standstill, the hybrid automatically turns off the engine and uses the battery to keep the air conditioner, entertainment system, lights, wipers, and even built-in chargers still running. You’re actually saving fuel and the environment when stuck in traffic. Even in long traffic jams, the car monitors the battery level and will automatically start it up to charge the battery when it’s low.

How does it handle floods?

Don’t believe the rumors. You won’t be electrocuted if you drive a hybrid through ankle deep floods. The battery compartments are sealed airtight and will not be affected even if you have to drive through water. Of course, it can’t go through knee-deep or waist deep floods, just like most passenger cars.

Is it more expensive to maintain?

Exploded view of the Toyota Prius

Not at all. Every aspect of a hybrid has been designed to function like a regular car. That means all you have to worry about are the same things as a normal car; like fuel, oil, air pressure, and wiper fluid. Your authorized service center will take care of the rest at every scheduled service.

You may be wondering about the batteries that power the car. Those were designed to last up to three years of daily use. In some cases, these car brands offer warranties for those batteries, some as long as five years. You’ll only notice a drop in performance after five years. Even then, the onboard computers are designed to manage that for you.

If there’s any problem with the batteries, like shorter lifespans, or not charging properly, they can be fixed or replaced by the casa thanks to that warranty. That’s better service than your average smart phone.

After five years, several brands will gladly take in your hybrid as a trade-in. They then repurpose or recycle the batteries in an environmentally-friendly way.

Why do some come with a charger?

The charger socket of a Plug-in hybrid.

Newer hybrids come with a plug. As such, they're called plug-in hybrids. This is so that buyers can charge up the batteries when parked at home. When fully-charged, these newer cars can drive the first few kilometers of a trip on purely electric mode, without even starting the gasoline engine to consume fuel or pollute the environment.

A wall socket charger with its own compartment.

Plugging in to charge is not a requirement. You can leave the house without charging the car, because the engine can do it for you. As such, you don't have to buy the charger.

Some brands offer these chargers for free. Others may charge extra for them. These wall socket-based chargers can fully charge a car’s batteries in 8 hours.

Others even offer a home supercharger. These are designed to fully charge batteries in as little as an hour or even 30 minutes. Take note that you’ll need a skilled electrician to install this the first time. It uses as much power as a home air conditioner, but for some, the speed of charging is worth it.

What are the choices?

Toyota Corolla Cross hybrid

There are a lot of hybrids already on sale in the Philippines. You can buy them at any showroom. They're registered like normal cars. They're also subject to color coding. Sorry.

Toyota offers the Corolla and Corolla Cross in hybrid versions. You can also get a Toyota Prius locally. Its luxury brand, Lexus, also has several models. Hyundai has the Ioniq in hybrid form. One of the newest is the Geely Azkarra. BMW just launched a hybrid 7 series. Much of Volvo's lineup is now available in hybrid form. Mercedes-Benz also has a few you can choose from. There are also high-performance hybrids like those offered by Porsche and Maserati.

There are even more coming from brands like Nissan, Mitsubishi, Honda, Subaru, Ford, Mini, Land Rover, and Volkswagen.

Who should buy a hybrid?

There’s really no limitation on who can buy and enjoy a hybrid. If you care about your fuel consumption and the environment, a hybrid might be a great choice. They consume much less fuel and emit much less pollution. You don’t have to be tech savvy either. Hybrids are designed to be very user-friendly, whether for technophiles or technophobes. Big screens and easy-to-understand graphics can show just how these systems work. Or, they can be turned off and made to work like the screens and dials of a normal car.

If you’re planning to get an electric car in the future, a hybrid is a perfect car to break you in. Hybrids work similarly to electric cars and will help you experience some of their quirks, like the quiet operation and battery awareness without the risk of getting a car entirely dependent on chargers.

Whatever the case, hybrids are not as intimidating as many think. In fact, they could be the best car you ever buy.