The upsides and downsides of hybrids

Friday, February 24, 2006

Dear Tom and Ray: I am currently living in Taiwan, and I don't have access to your radio show. But I can get your column! I'm hearing a lot of hype about how great hybrids are, and since I love road trips and hate expensive gas, I'm considering the purchase of one. However, no one seems to be talking about the downsides of hybrids. If they are so great, wouldn't we have had them 20 years ago? So, what are the negative aspects of these vehicles? Thank you for your always expert advice!


Tom: I fear you might be getting a poor translation of our column in Taiwan, Angela. You refer to some sort of "expert advice."

Ray: Anyway, one reason we didn't have hybrids 20 years ago is that we didn't have the cheap and miniaturized computer power we have today. The computers in hybrids assess the power needs at any given moment, and then switch seamlessly between the gasoline engine and the electric motor, or some combination of the two. Twenty years ago, you would have had to tow a U-Haul full of IBM computers behind you to get that kind of computing power.

Tom: So, hybrid technology has come a long way in 20 years -- thanks, in large part, to the Japanese, who are doing most of the innovation. But there still are downsides to hybrids. The most obvious one is the cost. You pay a premium to drive a vehicle with a hybrid powertrain. Yes, there are tax breaks and feel-good points for doing it. But will you make that money back in lower gasoline costs? Not quickly. Our quick, back-of-the-brake-pad-box calculation says you might save $500 a year if gasoline is $2.50 a gallon. But the premium for hybrids still averages several thousand dollars.

Ray: There's also the cost of the batteries. While most hybrid manufacturers are warranting their batteries for a long time (Toyota -- eight years, 100,000 miles, for example), eventually the batteries may need to be replaced by the owner. It could cost you several thousand dollars to buy a new battery pack for a car that -- by that time -- is nine or 10 years old. That's a little different from getting a $79.95 DieHard at Sears.

Tom: And the other potential downside is that your mileage depends a lot on precisely what kind of driving you do. Hybrids get their best mileage in stop-and-go traffic. Because the most common hybrid powertrain systems (Toyota's and Ford's) are designed so they can run on batteries alone at lower speeds, they can get higher mileage in the city than they do on the highway. So those who do a lot of highway driving might not find hybrids much better than high-mileage gasoline cars.

Ray: If you do a lot of city driving, a hybrid is a particularly great option. It cuts down on pollution and helps move us toward energy independence.

, and it allows you to smile smugly at SUV owners when you pass a gas station while they're loading in another 75 bucks' worth of regular.

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