Gas prices are rising, so it’s a good thing so many vehicles are secretly hybrids

For automakers, this is often part of the problem.

Sales of electric vehicles continue to grow each year, and more companies are announcing their intention to ditch gasoline engines altogether. But high fuel costs and the relatively high prices of all-electric cars mean hybrids can still help drivers save money. And customers are buying hybrids in droves, even if they don’t always realize they’re buying one.

The Toyota Prius kept car shoppers racing at dealerships in the early 2000s as gas prices soared and a recession drove them to seek out fuel-efficient alternatives. But those Prius waiting lists have eased over the years as more hybrids entered the market. Toyota Prius sales peaked in the United States in 2012, with over 230,000 sold. In 2019, that number fell to just over 69,000.

But at the same time, hybrid technology has become more common. And, while all-electric vehicles carry a certain cultural cachet, automakers are often cautious about the appeal of their gas-electric hybrids. While many hybrids are proudly advertised as such – the Hyundai Tucson Hybrid and Ford Escape Hybrid, for example – others, often vehicles with mild hybrid systems, only include this information in technical documents or the manual. of the owner.

The hybrid’s market share has more than doubled since 2017, from 2.0% of the market to 5.1% of the market, according to data from automotive website Edmunds.com. But that doesn’t cover all hybrid vehicles, said Edmunds.com analyst Ivan Drury. It is impossible to know exactly how many hybrid trucks, cars and SUVs are sold because they are only counted as hybrids in industry statistics when the manufacturer themselves calls it a hybrid or gives it a name. distinct pattern, Drury said. Often automakers don’t specifically call the systems hybrid, any more than they would any other engine or driveline characteristic. This means that a Toyota Rav4 hybrid might be counted while a Toyota Tundra i-Force Max pickup, which is also a hybrid, might not.

The differences in how hybrid vehicles are marketed – sometimes with a chrome “Hybrid” badge on the rear and sometimes with barely any mention at all – may come down to how the technology is perceived by different types of customers.

“There might be a bit of a stigma with the word ‘hybrid,'” said Bill Visnic, editorial director of the Society of Automotive Engineers.

Some car buyers worry that hybrid will mean “poor” performance, he said.

When people think of hybrids, they tend to think of the icon of the genre, the Toyota Prius. The Prius, and other similar hybrids, have batteries that store energy while the car is driving. This electricity is then used to power an electric motor which can drive the wheels at low speeds – or even at high speeds if the accelerator pedal is not pressed hard – and provide additional thrust when accelerating. But modern hybrids have overtaken the technology of the Prius.

From “light” hybrids to “full” hybrids

Many modern cars have what are called “mild hybrid” systems. These vehicles have smaller and lighter batteries and a less powerful electric motor than so-called full hybrids. The electric motor usually cannot drive the car on its own, but it can provide assistance whenever the vehicle starts from a stop. The gas engine still does most of the work, but the electric motor provides extra thrust that makes the gas engine’s job easier. Due to their smaller batteries, mild-hybrid technology is easier to put in a vehicle without taking up cargo space or passengers for batteries. They don’t add as much cost to the vehicle, making them easier to sell to buyers who aren’t entirely focused on fuel economy.

Mild-hybrid systems can be found in surprising places, like some full-size Jeep Wrangler and Ram 1500 pickup models. stops, allowing the truck to drain its battery when it sits still for about 10 minutes. (However, not all vehicles that turn off their engine while stationary are necessarily mild hybrids.) When the driver releases the brake pedal, an electric motor can begin to move the truck forward for less than half a second. while the gasoline engine is starting. Again.

The mild-hybrid system adds up to two extra miles per gallon, mostly in city driving, according to the manufacturer.

Other cars have Prius-style full hybrid systems, but don’t market them that way. The Toyota Tundra i-Force Max, for example, is a full-hybrid pickup truck, but you’d never know that by looking at it. He can cut his engine and drive sometimes using only his electric motor. But even on the dashboard, there is no indication that the truck has a hybrid system. There’s a gauge showing the amount of power coming from the electric motor, but it’s simply labeled “Max.”

The Tundra i-Force Max doesn’t make much of its hybrid nature, said Craig Herring, a Toyota engineer, because during market research potential customers showed no interest in buying a hybrid. But they were interested in more towing and hauling power without impacting fuel economy. The Tundra’s hybrid system is tuned for maximum power rather than fuel economy. In the Tundra lineup, the i-Force Max replaces what could have been a more fuel-efficient V8 engine option for customers who want maximum towing and hauling capability. With a focus on power, however, the Tundra Hybrid is less fuel efficient than Ford’s F-150 Hybrid, but it delivers a little more horsepower and torque.

Some vehicles, like the new Audi A3 compact sedan, fall somewhere between mild hybrids and full hybrids. It’s technically a sweet hybrid, but it’s not that sweet. As in a full hybrid, an electric motor can move the relatively small and light A3, Audi’s entry-level model, at low speeds or coasting on flat roads or downhill. Similar technology is available on larger Audi models in Europe, said Anthony Garbis, product planning manager for Audi of America, but it was felt that US customers might not appreciate it on these larger cars. and more luxurious.

“We always thought it was a bit weird to have your A8 [full-size luxury sedan] on the autobahn,” he said. “So with the A3, it seemed like the right audience, the right price, and the right technology to introduce the freewheel feature.”

And with Audi moving to an all-electric lineup in just over a decade, there’s less focus on that kind of technology, he said. Now Audi is considering the time when its cars will no longer have gasoline engines.

How to find a secret hybrid

If you’re curious if a car you’re thinking of buying has mild-hybrid technology, a visit to the automaker’s website will usually tell you. Or you can just Google or go directly to online resources such as Consumer Reports (subscription required), KBB.com, Edmunds.com or, if you really want to dig into the details, CarandDriver.com.
If you’re simply looking for the best fuel economy, regardless of the technology involved, the Environmental Protection Agency’s fueleconomy.gov site is always the best place to start.

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