I am looking for a new car and, thinking about those gas prices, I’m tempted to buy a more fuel-efficient vehicle. Is a hybrid car really worth it?
Today’s gas prices make everyone think about energy efficiency, and there are some real benefits – from an economic, environmental, and security perspective – to buying a more efficient vehicle. If everyone in the United States purchased one of the four most efficient models in each vehicle class (sedans, sub-compacts, SUVs, light trucks), Americans could save 13.1 billion gallons of gasoline annually. Reducing gasoline use protects America’s national security while reducing air pollution and global warming.
These statistics translate to real money-savings for consumers. The difference between a car that gets 20 MPG (miles per gallon) and one that gets 30 MPG amounts to $1,800 over 5 years, assuming gas costs $1.80 per gallon and one drives 12,000 miles a year.  In 2004, SUV drivers spent about $1,225 on fuel, while passenger car drivers spent only $976. Hybrid electric car drivers spent between $350 and $450. Improvements in automobile efficiency since 1973 saved consumers $151 billion in 2004 alone.
Hybrid vehicles are becoming a real option for many American consumers. According to Department of Energy projections, by the end of this decade, 750,000 hybrid vehicles will be sold annually – that means one in every 23 passenger vehicles sold will be a hybrid electric.
Hybrid vehicles, which combine a gasoline engine and electric motor, have the potential to increase fuel economy and reduce emissions. But not all vehicles being marketed as hybrids take advantage of the full range of hybrid technology. If you care about having a car with the least harmful environmental impact, it’s important to know what’s under the hood. There are currently five types of hybrid technology available to automakers:
-> Idle-off capability. The engine turns off when the vehicle is stopped in traffic or at a light, and turns back on when you move your foot from the brake to the gas pedal.
-> Regenerative braking. The electric motor helps slow the car, and functions as a generator to convert some of the energy typically lost during braking into electricity (thereby recharging the vehicle’s battery).
-> Power assist and engine downsizing. The electric motor helps propel the car, in particular during acceleration. Because the motor and engine share the power load, the engine’s size can be reduced, saving even more fuel.
-> Electric-only drive. The electric motor can power the vehicle by itself at low speeds and when first starting the car.
-> Extended battery-electric range. The car runs solely on electric power for 20 to 60 miles before engaging the gasoline engine. You have to recharge the car’s battery by plugging it into an external electricity source.
According to the Union of Concerned Scientists, “mild” hybrids such as Honda’s Insight and Civic Hybrid employ the first three technologies above. “Full” hybrids, including the Toyota Prius and Ford Escape Hybrid, go one step further and feature electric-only drive. “Plug-in” hybrids that utilize all five technologies are not currently available as passenger vehicles.
Hybrid technology is also being used to increase power and performance rather than fuel economy. The resulting “muscle” hybrids, such as the Toyota Highlander Hybrid and Lexus RX 400h, provide only a fraction of the potential fuel economy and environmental benefits. The Honda Accord Hybrid falls between mild and muscle hybrids.
Beware of “hollow” hybrids. When you are researching a new car, it’s important to research your options and make sure that the car you are buying will really save you money, reduce oil demand, and protect the environment. Some automakers are trying to create a “green” image by putting one or two of these technologies into their conventional vehicles and calling them hybrids. The Chevrolet Silverado Hybrid and GMC Sierra Hybrid, for example, have idle-off capability but improve fuel economy by only one or two miles per gallon. Such improvements might be lauded if they were made standard options in every Silverado and Sierra, but producing a limited quantity and marketing them as hybrids will only dilute the term’s meaning and soften demand for hybrid technologies.
When evaluating hybrids, keep in mind that the environmental performance of specific models can vary. For example, Honda Civic Hybrids sold in California rate an exemplary 9.5 out of 10 on the EPA’s smog-forming emissions scale, while others currently rate just a 2.
For a customized, side-by-side comparison of hybrid models, financial incentives for buying a hybrid, and useful tips from technology experts and hybrid drivers-visit the Union of Concerned Scientists’ Hybrid center athttp://www.hybridcenter.org.
You can also find a wealth of free information about energy-efficient cars and other products from Consumer Reports athttp://www.eco-labels.org/greenconsumers/ (see the section on “Autos”).
 Today, the additional cost of a hybrid car still sometimes exceeds the cost savings in reduced gasoline usage, so you should compare your numbers carefully to assess what you can afford. However, buying a hybrid not only saves gas money but protects the environment, and protects our national/international security. And more demand for hybrids today will reduce costs tomorrow. So, if you can afford a hybrid, by all means consider one. And if you can’t, buy the least-polluting car you can afford (or best yet, hold off on buying that car if you can wait) till prices come down a bit.
 We admit that this article is American-centric. International readers, we know you are out there, and we’re sorry! If one of you would like to write a comparable article on energy-efficient cars outside the U.S., we’d be happy to consider it for publication.
 See http://www.ucsusa.org/publications/greentips/505-how-to-buy-a-hybrid-car.html.
This section is reprinted courtesy of the Union of Concerned Scientists.
Originally posted in “On Eagles’ Wings” June 20th 2006