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What Is a Hybrid Car?

Posted by Auto.com Staff | Jan 2, 2019

In today’s market, few things are as synonymous with fuel efficiency as the word 'hybrid.' And rightly so: simply put, a hybrid vehicle typically combines an electric motor with a gasoline engine to drive the wheels. Systems can vary, from plug-in electric vehicles that use a small internal-combustion generator that charges the batteries that power the car to setups that use an electric motor to drive the car at low speeds and a conventional gas engine to handle acceleration at higher speeds. In more performance-oriented systems, the two can work side by side to generate much higher power output than either could individually.

While hybrid cars seem to have come on the scene recently, the technology is by no means new. Diesel-electric trains date back to the early 1900s. These early systems, combining diesel generators with electric power motors, led to the use of fuel-electric hybrid systems in public transportation vehicles around the world. But when it comes to passenger vehicles, the concept goes back even further. The first gasoline-electric passenger car was developed in 1899, but the concept didn’t meet the same level of application as larger systems for almost one hundred years.

Launched in 1997, the Toyota Prius became the first gasoline-and-electric hybrid car mass produced and, in turn, forever changed the automotive landscape. While that first generation of Prius was only sold in Japan, other countries – and automakers – took note, and the second-generation Prius was able to reach a worldwide market. Since those early days, technology has improved to increase the fuel economy of hybrids. Regenerative braking technology, first developed in the 1970s, has greatly improved, as well as the technology and materials used for the batteries often found in hybrids. Thanks to advances like these, it is not unheard of for some modern hybrid cars to see EPA-estimated mileage figures in the 50-mpg range.

Modern hybrid cars work by combining a combustion engine with an electric motor. The systems are usually proprietary to the specific manufacturer. For example, the Toyota Prius uses a hybrid system called “Series Parallel” where the power from both the electric motor and gasoline engine operate in parallel to send power where is needs to be. In stop-and-go city traffic, the car is primarily electric-powered, with the gas engine singing backup. But when more power is needed, the gas engine steps up. Another example of a hybrid system commonly seen in the market is the Plug-In Hybrid, as seen in the Chevrolet Volt. This is a system that operates similar to a Series Parallel hybrid car, but with increased battery capacity that allows you could drive a set range on electric-only power.

Today’s automotive market is full of hybrid options, from the classic Toyota Prius, to the MacLaren P-1 plug-in hybrid supercar. The hybrid-specific system means they can travel further distances than electric cars, and hybrid technology means they get better mileage and improved emissions than conventional gasoline cars. The range of hybrid systems is nearly as vast as the body styles you can find them in, with an option to suit nearly every need. Minivans, SUVs, trucks, passenger cars and even luxury vehicles: no matter what kind of car you are looking for, there is sure to be a hybrid option that will fit your needs.