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What’s Up With That? Hybrid Technology

What a classic childhood toy can teach you about eco-friendliness and fuel economy

Since its introduction in 1997, the Toyota Prius has forever changed the automotive market. By adding a secondary battery that charges when you brake, this first hybrid car proved that being responsible to the environment didn’t have to mean sacrificing your vehicle’s driving range.

Now, more than two decades on from the debut of the first hybrids, new technologies have given these cars and trucks even more power and range. Some commercial fleets — and enthusiasts — are even converting old fashioned gasoline powered vehicles to hybrids, as well.

But just how does a hybrid car work, anyway?

If you were born any time in the past 70 years, you’ve probably played with one of those pull-back toy cars. Their coiled spring “engines” were patented back in 1952, and the concept is still going strong today.

It’s a simple idea: you press down on the toy car’s hood, drag it backwards, let it go, and it zooms away. Though it doesn’t zoom very far, pulling it back and watching it go forward can keep a child  entertained for hours.

Stored energy is the concept behind this simple toy. When you pull it back, a spring inside the body is wound up tight. Let it go, and the energy stored in the spring is released, propelling the car forward. Hybrid technology works in a similar way, albeit with more steps and fancier gadgets.

No, there’s not a coiled spring that tightens every time you drive in reverse. There is, however, an electric generator that captures energy from your car’s rotating wheels as you brake, when you’re going downhill, or other times when the car is moving but neither the gasoline engine nor the electric motors are providing power. The captured energy is passed through a converter, and stored in the traction battery pack, a separate battery system from the one that’s used to start your car.

The energy is released when you move your car from a standing start or when you’re accelerating on the move. This electronic assist reduces the amount of power required from your gasoline engine, cutting down the amount of gasoline you need. This not only saves you money, it also cuts your car’s emissions. Your wallet thanks you. Your planet thanks you.

Types of Hybrid Vehicles

There are three main types of hybrid systems, full, mild, and plug-in. Each has its own strengths and weaknesses. Let’s take a closer look at what makes them tick or, uh, hum, or whisper?

Full hybrid vehicles, like the Toyota Prius, can run on either their gas engine or their battery pack. Their batteries are recharged by the engine as well as the brakes. They offer a balanced combination of power and driving range.

Mild hybrid vehicles, like the Honda Accord Hybrid, always run their battery and engine power together. This constant use of the battery to assist the gasoline engine improves your fuel economy and driving range slightly, but not as much as a full hybrid.

Plug-in hybrid vehicles, like the Kia Optima, have all the capabilities of a full hybrid. Their advantage is that they have larger battery packs. This gives them the longest range of all the hybrid types. On the downside, you have to stop at a charging station to get their best performance. This makes them excellent for commuting to and from your home charging station, not as good on long road trips.

What It Means for Your Car

In short: Mild hybrids are often the most affordable, while full hybrids or plug-in hybrids offer greater driving range and performance.

No matter what style of hybrid you choose, though, it will have better gas mileage and less emissions than a standard engine — putting more money in your pocket while protecting the environment, too.

Like all batteries, the traction battery in your hybrid will get to a point where it can no longer hold a charge. Then, it will have to be replaced. The good news is that you don’t have to replace the whole car. If you’re still happy with all the other parts, you can just replace the battery. When that time comes, we hope you’ll give us a call. We are certified hybrid specialists. One of our service advisors will be able to set you up with a new battery that’s just right for your car — and at a significant savings over what most dealers charge.

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