What is a hybrid car, and how does it work?
"Hybrid car" is a catch-all term for any car that has an internal combustion engine (ICE) and an electric motor. Hybrid cars also come with two batteries: one dedicated to the ICE and one dedicated to the electric motor. There are three main types of hybrid cars (mild, full, and plug-in), categorized by how and when the electric motor and battery are used to power the car and its components.
Should you buy a hybrid car?
Whether you should buy a hybrid car or not depends on whether you're willing to pay a little more at the point of purchase for the potential of greater savings over time. Despite being more expensive upfront, hybrid cars tend to retain their value better over time. And because of their reduced impact on the environment, hybrid car purchases may qualify you for tax credits, incentives, and rebates at the federal, state, and local levels.
Are hybrid cars expensive to repair?
Maintenance and repairs can be more expensive with hybrid cars because you're dealing with two power systems (the ICE and electric components) instead of one. But the amount you spend on gas with a hybrid car is often significantly less. Plus, hybrids also have reduced emissions and higher fuel efficiency, making them more environmentally friendly to drive. Learn more about car insurance for electric cars.
Hybrid cars: Pros and cons by type
There are three main types of hybrid cars, each with advantages and disadvantages:
- Mild hybrid cars have an electric system that only provides a brief acceleration assist to the gas-powered engine when the car is fully stopped. It also powers things like the heating and air conditioning, stereo, and other non-driving components. Mild hybrid cars tend to be the least expensive hybrid type and offer some fuel savings over gas-only cars.
- Full hybrid cars have an electric system that drives the powertrain. The electric motor usually handles city driving, and the ICE/gas engine takes over for highway driving. Full hybrids are more expensive than mild hybrids (and ICE-only cars) but can retain a higher value throughout the their lifespan. They also have greater fuel savings and a reduced environmental impact. However, full hybrids may be more expensive to maintain because of the added engine complexity.
- Plug-in hybrid vehicles (PHEVs) are designed to be able to use an electric motor and battery as their primary energy source. The ICE may run simultaneously or only be a backup — coming online when the electric battery is running out of power. These tend to be the most expensive hybrid cars, and the potential fuel savings are highest. Plug-in hybrid cars also have the lowest emissions impact on the environment. You'll want to make sure there are charging stations available at home and along any longer routes you take so you can take full advantage of the electric motor and battery.
Note: A fuel cell electric vehicle (FCEV) might be considered a fourth type of hybrid car, bit it's not widely available right now. Instead of using gasoline, these FCEV hybrids use a hydrogen fuel cell that has zero emissions — only water vapor and hot air come out of the tailpipe. If the pros and cons of hybrid cars on the environment are a major factor for you, an FCEV may be an attractive option once refueling stations become more common. Learn more about the differences between hybrid vs. electric cars and hybrid vs. gas cars.
Common problems with hybrid cars
Generally speaking, hybrid cars are reliable, especially since technology has been around for multiple generations of cars. Here are some common hybrid-specific maintenance issues you might encounter:
- Batteries: Getting a hybrid means having a second battery in the car, and it's one that may not (yet) perform as well as its ICE counterpart. It's also more expensive and may need to be replaced more often.
- Catalytic converters: This car component helps convert exhaust gases into less toxic emissions. Catalytic converters are more expensive to replace on hybrids than on ICEs.
- Evaporative emission systems (EVAP): This is another part of the car that controls emissions. The need to fix leaks and replace parts tends to be more common with hybrid cars.
- Oxygen sensors: Oxygen sensors don't necessarily fail more often in hybrids versus ICE cars. However, a faulty oxygen sensor in a hybrid can lead to significantly lower fuel efficiency.
Are hybrid cars worth it?
Hybrid cars can be worth it if one of your priorities is your car's environmental impact, and you can invest in a car that's more expensive now but may save you money in the long run.
Deciding what kind of hybrid can depend on where you live, how you commute to work, and your lifestyle. For example, plug-in hybrids work best for people who own their own homes, don't have excessively long commutes, and don't typically drive long distances for pleasure. On the other hand, full hybrids work well for shorter commutes and city driving because this driving type can lead to greater use of the electric-vehicle aspect of the car. Full hybrids also tend to have excellent fuel economy for longer drives.