When looking for the best hybrid car for the family, it’s important to consider which type of hybrid best fulfills the needs and priorities of all the family members. It’s also important to review the factors that make the vehicle stand out from competition and explore any tax credits you may benefit from at the time of the purchase.
Here’s what you need to know.
A Variety of Hybrids
In most respects, the hybrid is like any other vehicle – same basic features and function, just better fuel economy and (typically) lesser performance.
As a result of their relative similarity, many people don’t realize there are four different types of hybrid powertrains to be aware of, as each has their own pros and cons. The “mild hybrids” are basically a regular gasoline car with an electric assist motor and regenerative breaking, and since the engine and the transmission are directly connected, the car cannot run solely on electric power. Mild hybrids like the Honda Civic Hybrid or Buick Regal Hybrid offer a limited fuel economy benefit compared to a regular gasoline engine, and often times are not worth the premium (more on that below).
“Full hybrids” have the gasoline engine and either one or two electric motors. In a typical setup, the engine is used more like an electric generator than a traditional motor. Therefore, these cars can run solely on electric power supplied from the battery – at least until the battery runs low or the power requirements call for the gas engine to generate more juice. The Toyota Prius – all Toyota hybrids, in fact – are typical full hybrids.
There’s also such a thing as a “parallel hybrid,” which offers many of the same benefits as a full hybrid, but typically trades a little fuel efficiency for improved performance. This type of design has fallen out of favor in recent years. However, BMW and Mercedes use this setup so that they can provide the performance their consumers have come to expect.
Finally we have “plug-in hybrids,” which are basically just full hybrids with a larger battery pack and a charging port. Designed to run exclusively on electric power for shorts distances, it’s entirely possible that you could purchase a plug-in hybrid and rarely (or never) use gasoline.
The Prius plug-in hybrid, for example, can drive about 11 miles on electricity only before the gas engine is needed. If you and your family only need a car for a few minutes a day, a plug-in hybrid could virtually eliminate your gasoline bill, yet give you the flexibility to travel further when needed.
Things to Remember When Evaluating A Hybrid
Hybrids provide just as much interior room as any standard auto; the battery pack does typically use up some trunk space, however, so make sure all your gear is going to fit back there.
Additionally, it’s important to consider maintenance and repair costs before buying a hybrid. Since it can be dangerous to work on these cars without the proper certification, many independent repair shops can not or will not work on hybrid power systems if/when they need repairs. Therefore, you might find that you’re 100% dependent upon your local dealership for anything outside of basic maintenance.
Finally, it’s a good idea to think about how many years it will take to “earn back” the premium you pay for a hybrid. If you take the cost of the hybrid vehicle and compare it to the non-hybrid alternative, the difference between the two is the “cost premium.” Once you know this amount, visit the side-by-side comparison tool on FuelEconomy.gov and look at the two vehicle’s “Annual Fuel Cost”. Take the difference between annual fuel costs (it should be a few hundred dollars) and then divide it into the cost premium.
Typically, the math shows that hybrid owners earn back their cost premium in 3-7 years. If you’re not going to keep your car that long – or if you don’t drive more than 12,000 miles per year – you may find that your earn back period is beyond 7 or 8 years. At that point, it might not be worth it to purchase a hybrid.
What About Tax Credits?
In years past, purchasing a full or mild hybrid vehicle qualified the buyer for a tax credit. As of 2010, however, the tax credit for hybrids has been phased out.
Having said that, purchasing a plug-in hybrid or full electric vehicle can qualify you for as much as a $7,500 IRS tax credit, a substantial benefit for many consumers. To learn more about this credit, see the IRS website. Generally speaking, plug-in hybrid and electric car buyers will enjoy substantial savings on their income taxes (only this is subject to change).
So, to sum up:
- Understand the difference between hybrid systems
- Check trunk space
- Consider who will do repairs – if you live in a rural area, a hybrid could be difficult or impossible to repair
- Bust out your calculator and do some math so you know how long it will take you to earn back the cost of a hybrid
- Don’t forget to consider any federal tax credits in your earn back calculation
Author Tom Blackman writes for Olathe Toyota Parts Center, which sells OEM replacement parts for all Toyota Prius models.