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How Do Hybrid Cars Work?

Posted by Auto.com Staff | Jan 2, 2019

Hybrid cars get their name from that fact that they utilize at least two different systems to drive. While there are a wide variety of differing hybrid systems out there, the most common design is like the one found in the hybrid classic, the Toyota Prius. Using a combination of a gasoline engine and an electric motor, the car runs off of whichever system is the most efficient: at lower speeds, an electric motor can crawl through traffic just fine. But on the freeway, the gas engine is more efficient.

That is the real beauty of how hybrid cars work. Being able to move using the most efficient option available for the conditions given is what allows hybrid cars to get the fuel economy they do. At idle or just creeping through stop-and-go traffic, a combustion engine is not performing at peak efficiency. But these slower speeds are perfect for an electric motor where little energy is required. Conversely, a combustion engine is at peak efficiency while coasting at speed. But the energy required to get up to highway speeds, then maintain it, is taxing on an electrical motor.

Since the early days of hybrid cars, manufacturers have developed new and different hybrid systems. These new designs offer a twist on the familiar: models like the plug-in hybrid, which provides drivers with the addition of small amounts of electric-only travel. This means that a driver could allow the car to charge then drive to the grocery store and back without ever running the gasoline engine. Options like this are especially appealing to those living in urban areas, where they may not need to travel more than a few miles round-trip.

Plug-in hybrids are different from electric cars, though. Depending on the electric vehicle, you may need to find a charging station once your car gets low on power. Electric cars like the Tesla Model S run on batteries only, which means once you are out of juice, you are done. Other electric vehicles, like the Chevrolet Volt, come with a range-extender that allows a small engine to charge the batteries when they get low. Both of these cars can only drive under battery power and nothing else – which means they are not hybrids.

As technology has improved, so has hybrid efficiency. One of the most recognized of these technologies is regenerative braking. This technology harnesses the kinetic energy that would otherwise be lost through heat and friction when you apply the brakes to decelerate. That energy is then stored in the car’s on-board batteries. This type of technology means increased fuel efficiency through what is, essentially, salvaged electric power.

It seems like hybrid technology can be found everywhere these days: passenger vehicles, luxury vehicles and even sports cars. By providing drivers with options – gas-powered, electric-powered, and any combination thereof in the form of hybrid cars, buyers to find a car that perfectly suits their needs. With a growing number of car makers now offering these same hybrid options in crossover and traditional SUV body styles, they ensure that everyone can find a car with the room and efficiency they desire.