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As a careful consumer, I studied up on hybrid cars before buying my first one. After poring through car reviews, I finally took the plunge and went with a 2007 Prius. But what I’ve learned behind the wheel has betrayed many of the preconceived notions that I once had – and that my friends still cling to…
- Hybrids can be fast. While my Prius won’t be winning any drag races, some other hybrids might – they were designed largely by adding one or more electric motors to the standard drive-train, resulting in multi-engine power. For example, Car and Driver found that the 2011 Lexus RX450h, with three electric motors, went from zero to 60 in 7.1 seconds – faster than the non-hybrid model.
- Hybrids can climb. I recently drove my Prius to the 14,000-foot summit of Mt. Evans in Colorado, which is the highest paved road in North America. The Prius had no problems on the steep climb, which I attribute to its continuously variable transmission (or CVT). Rather than using a number of gears like the transmissions in most cars, this design allows for an infinite selection of gear ratios. When accelerating uphill, the car “shifts” to the lowest gear, instantly harnessing 100 percent of the power available. Having an electric motor that’s immune to the thin air also helped.
- Hybrids can hold heat. The Prius and many other hybrids make a strange noise for a few seconds when you shut them down. I later learned that it’s pumping antifreeze into a 3-liter thermos-like storage device that can keep it warm for days. This eases starts, reduces emissions, and provides cabin heat much more quickly.
- Forget emissions tests. In many major cities, vehicles are required to regularly pass a time-consuming emissions inspection. When registering my car, I was surprised to learn that hybrids were exempt from this requirement in Colorado and in most other states. In retrospect, it seems obvious, but I wasn’t aware of this perk.
- The hybrid battery will probably outlive the car. Most people question the life of the expensive hybrid battery, yet my research showed these concerns are groundless. Consumer Reports recently tested a 2001 Prius with 200,000 miles and found the battery worked like new. The LA Times found that the Ford Escape Hybrids used as taxis in San Francisco were all reaching 300,000 miles before their planned retirement.
- Expect fewer brake jobs. It can cost more than $400 to resurface your car’s brakes and replace their pads – not a cheap maintenance task. Hybrids use regenerative braking to generate electricity while saving their traditional brakes, and owners report lowered brake wear compared to conventional vehicles.
- Less frequent oil changes. Your hybrid’s gas engine will turn off when the vehicle is coasting down hill, decelerating, or at a stop. Because this inactivity reduces wear on its gasoline engine, hybrids often have longer maintenance intervals. For example, Toyota recommends oil changes every 5,000 miles on its Prius, while Subaru and others require oil changes every 3,000 miles.
One strange drawback…
Given all of the popular misconceptions surrounding the durability of the hybrid battery system, you would think Toyota would go out of its way to make sure its owners never had battery problems of any sort. To a large extent, they do this, offering a 100,000-mile warranty (150,000 miles in California) on the high-voltage battery used for propulsion.
But to my surprise, the Prius and other hybrids also include a conventional low-voltage battery to power the accessories and start the engine. Sadly, the standard Toyota battery is poorly suited to hybrid use – a fact I learned after my car wouldn’t start one morning after leaving a small interior light on. Fortunately, Prius drivers have found aftermarket replacements for their low-voltage battery that corrects this problem.
Hybrids get fantastic gas mileage with few drawbacks, but drivers must consider some of their other surprising benefits when purchasing a vehicle.