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January 20, 2012

News & Features

Behind on your 'green' car knowledge? We'll catch you up

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A detail from the 2012 Ford Fusion Hybrid. (Ford)

Hybrids and electric cars are hot: carmakers are rolling out more models each year, charging stations are popping up all over the city, parking spots are reserved for high-efficiency rides. But what if you, well, haven't really been paying attention?

Here's a primer on where we stand, so you can figure out where you're headed.

What's a hybrid?
Hybrid vehicles utilize a blend of two propulsion methods to provide optimum efficiency. That means you still have to buy gasoline, just not as much. A typical hybrid car is equipped with a high-efficiency engine; one or more electric motors or generators; a suitcase-sized battery pack; and a bunch of smart electronics to manage the group.

Terms to know
  • Some of the terms associated with hybrid and electric vehicles:
  • kWh: A kilowatt-hour is a measure of electrical energy. Batteries (and battery packs) used by electric vehicles and hybrids are rated by the kWh capacity of their battery pack because it represents how far the auto might travel solely on electric power. One kWh generally has enough energy to propel a car four to five miles.
  • Level 1 charging: Charging from a typical wall socket, typically a 110- or 120-volt outlet. Electric vehicles gain five to six miles for every hour they charge on Level 1.
  • Level 2 charging: Charging from a 220- or 240-volt outlet. This goes much faster than a regular wall outlet because it pulls more current at a higher voltage. Most electric vehicle owners install Level 2 charging systems in their homes. An EV can get 10 to 60 miles of range per hour of charging, depending on the amperage of the circuit.
  • Level 3 charging: Also known as DC fast charging, this is a specialized high-voltage system that can charge a battery pack in about 30 minutes. It requires a special port on the electric vehicle and a special charging station that, as of now, is not widely available.
  • Off-peak charging: Charging the battery pack during periods of low demand for electricity, usually at night. This can reduce the cost of charging.
  • Parallel hybrid: A vehicle in which drive power is supplied by both an electric motor and a combustion engine working together. The Toyota Prius is a parallel hybrid.
  • Range anxiety: Fear of not having enough power in the battery to get to a destination.
  • Series hybrid vehicle: A vehicle in which power is delivered to the drive wheels solely by an electric motor but which uses a combustion engine to provide electric energy to the battery or the electric motor. The Chevy Volt is a series hybrid.
  • ZEV: A zero-emission vehicle. That means no pollutants come out of its tailpipe. Such vehicles include electric cars and fuel-cell vehicles and often qualify for government sales incentives and other perks such as carpool-lane permits.

A hybrid system recycles a significant amount of energy to the battery pack for future use as you drive. Since it does the charging for you, you don't have to plug it in and you don't have to worry about the battery dying mid-trip.

Examples: The Toyota Prius is the standard-bearer. It gets 50 mpg and is the top-selling hybrid in the world. The Honda Insight was another early hybrid; it gets 41 mpg. There are now several hybrid versions of familiar cars and SUVs, such as the Toyota Camry, the Ford Fusion and the Porsche Cayenne. There's even a hybrid version of the Cadillac Escalade, which gets 21 mpg.

So what's a plug-in hybrid?
These vehicles have a battery pack that, as you'd guess, can be charged through an electrical outlet. They get a longer range thanks to the extra juice, and can often be driven for short stretches on electric power alone. Like a regular hybrid, they have a combustion engine that runs on gasoline that also helps charge the battery. You may see the acronyms PHEV or PHV in relation to plug-in hybrids.

Examples: The Fisker Karma is a sports car that can go up to 32 miles on electric power alone. The Prius c, due out in March, gets 13 electric-only miles. Other PHEVs on the near horizon are the Ford C-Max, Volvo V70 (already on sale in Europe) and BMW i8.

Where does the Volt fit in?
Some would call Chevrolet's innovative sedan simply a plug-in hybrid. But because it can be driven gas-free for 35 miles, Chevy is calling it an "extended-range electric vehicle." No matter what you call it, it gets up to 375 miles on a tank of gas.

Can I cut out gasoline completely?
Yes, and several new options are rolling out in 2012 alone. Electric vehicles are powered solely or primarily by a battery pack, with no tailpipe or emissions. You charge the battery and run the car. There's no gasoline engine, so when the battery is out of juice you're done driving until you charge it up again.

Because they don't need gallons of gas, they don't have regular mpg ratings. Instead, they get a mpg equivalent (mpge), which measures the average distance traveled per unit of energy consumed. For now, the EPA says 33.7 kilowatt hours of energy equals a gallon of gas.

Examples: The Nissan Leaf has sold more than 15,000 units worldwide in just over a year of availability. It gets 99 mpge. The Mitsubishi i is new for 2012, and leads this year's fuel-efficiency ratings with 126 mpge. Other electric vehicles due out this year include the Toyota RAV4 electric, Ford Focus electric and Tesla S.

What's the catch?
Hybrids and electrics cost more than their gasoline-drinking equivalents. For example, a Toyota Camry hybrid (43 mpg city/39 highway) has an MRSP of $25,900, while the regular Camry (25/35 mpg) starts at $22,000.

If you go for a plug-in hybrid or an electric, you also have to add in the cost of a home charging station, which run $2,000 or more on average. A $7,500 federal tax credit for electric vehicles helps soften the blow a bit.

You'll make up some of the added cost in saved gas, but it will take several years. Better to ask yourself if it's worth the added expense to reduce your dependence on oil and reduce carbon emissions in your neighborhood. The Leaf creates about 1.8 tons of carbon emissions in a year's driving, according to federal estimates, while a gas-powered Honda Accord creates 6.2 tons traveling the same distance.

You also need to consider your driving habits. If you have a mega-commute, you will be better off in a hybrid or conventional fuel-efficient vehicle.

Motorists who commute about 40 miles or less, or who have easy access to a workplace charging station, will be able to make better use of an EV because they won't be limited by the shorter range of the vehicles.

Is now the right time to buy?
This is the classic conundrum of all advanced-technology products: Do you buy now or wait for improvements or the next big thing?

The big issue with electrics and plug-in hybrids is how long you can go before the juice runs out. That's dependent on the size of the battery and its energy density.

Most automakers believe there will be only small improvements to batteries in the near future. The price will go down as manufacturing volumes increase, but a sudden jump in range is not expected.

Buyers also need to be concerned about battery life. The batteries have long warranties — eight to 10 years, depending on state regulation and the individual automaker. But they are also expected to degrade, and that will hurt range. It is not clear when an automaker might step in and replace a battery as it degrades.

In the near term, many buyers may decide to lease an electric vehicle instead of making a purchase. That would insure them against issues with performance and the battery. At the end of 36 months, you can hand the keys back to the manufacturer and see what cool new EV is on the market. Or by then, maybe you will be ready to check out the first of the hydrogen-fuel-cell autos.

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