Driving a hybrid

What to expect behind the wheel

It’s natural to feel some apprehension towards buying an electrified vehicles (xEV). After all, with their unique powertrain, dual power sources, and larger amount of electronics, it’s easy for any motorist to feel daunted about making the switch.

As such, we’re here to tell you that there’s very little to worry about. In fact, there’s barely any adjustment needed as they’re designed to operate and run almost exactly like a conventional combustion vehicle. In this article, we’ll run you through how they work.

How does it work?

Hybrids use a combination of a gasoline engine and electric motor for power. In a normal car, an engine is needed to move it forward and power all of the car's accessories. In the hybrid's case, either motor or both simultaneously can be used to do the same. In addition, any excess power is stored in on-board batteries to be used by the electric motor later.

It may sound confusing but they're much simpler in operation. The car's intelligent power management computer constantly monitors the vehicle's speed and power consumption, determining on its own if it needs the gasoline engine, the electric motor, the batteries or both for a particular situation. There's even a display in the vehicle that tells the driver which power source is producing power and where it's going. The result is continuous and seamless transition between the two, leaving the driver with little to worry about but the road ahead.

Geared towards efficiency

Everything about the car is designed to be fuel efficient. Hybrids typically use continuously variable transmissions to make the most out of the least amount of power. Because the onboard batteries tend to weigh a vehicle down, some of these cars are built with a large proportion of lightweight steel and aluminum. Some even sport highly aerodynamic designs to further reduce wind drag. Others go as far as equipping light alloy wheels and low resistance tires. In the fuel efficiency game, every little drop saved counts.

How they feel

The hybrid feeling starts with a press of the Start button. There's no cranking and rumble, not even any vibration; just the sight of the digital dashboard turning on and screens coming to life. You may not hear any engine cranking, but rest assured that the vehicle is already on. It's just waiting for you to put the car in gear and step on the throttle. If you roll off slowly, it might just decide to run on battery power initially. In the energy usage display, you'll likely see arrows coming from the battery, moving towards the wheels.

With more pressure on the throttle, the vehicle may decide to start the combustion engine, you'll feel a slight shake. That's the engine coming on. At this point the screen displays an arrow from the engine towards the wheels. A few arrows may point to the battery too, indicating that the engine is also charging the battery with the excess power.

If you decide to bury your foot a little further, the teamwork begins. The familiar rev of an engine makes itself heard. Arrows from both the engine and battery are now pointed at the wheels. This means the engine is getting a boost from the electric motor, and the surge of torque should move the car forward faster than you expect.

Naturally, you'll want to step on the brakes. This triggers the car's regenerative braking system. Arrows will begin to move from the wheels towards the batteries. As you slow down, the engine quietly shuts off and the car coasts on the momentum it has built up, recharging the batteries that power the rest of the car's systems like air conditioning, entertainment, lights and even the wipers. All that power management was done just by varying the pressure on the gas pedal. No other driver input necessary.

Unique abilities

Naturally, having two engines has its advantages. Should you run out of battery, the vehicle will switch its engine on and rely on fossil fuel power until you can get to a gas station.

You also have the option to switch to pure electric mode, often called “EV” or “Battery” mode, allowing the car to use up the stored charge while keeping the engine off. This usually only works when there is at least 50% charge in the battery. When in that mode, these cars are extremely quiet. Some pedestrians might not even be aware you’re there, because they don't hear the usual engine noise, so exercise caution. Once the charge is used up, the gasoline engine will turn on, recharging the batteries as it goes.

The savings

On a typical drive, the vehicle will continue to do this juggling act, even without you noticing. By automatically alternating between gasoline and electric power, it reduces fuel wasted while slowing down and idling. The results can be pretty surprising; returning 10-16 km/L on a typically heavy traffic drive. With some concerted effort (intently watching the energy meter every other second), you can even go higher.

It may sound like pretty intimidating technology, but hybrids these days are designed to be as familiar and user-friendly as possible. Other than the lack of engine noise, it feels exactly like a regular car. It drives almost the same (just feels a bit heavier), occupies the same space on the road and saves even more fuel. Their 'ordinary-ness' may burst the bubble of those who were hoping to step into the Starship Enterprise, yet this familiarity is the whole point. It's to invite us into this first step toward a cleaner motoring future.