So You Want to Buy a Hybrid Car: 6 Things to Know

So you want to buy a hybrid? You probably know it will save you some gas, if you’re comparing it with a similar non-hybrid (though you probably ought to make sure). But there are some things you might not know. Here are six.

Related: Should I Buy an Electric Car or Plug-In Hybrid?

1. Acceleration Might Feel Weird

For most of their history, gas-electric hybrids had a downside in the form of weird acceleration. Weird in what way? Characteristics like delayed or muted response after you stepped on the accelerator pedal. Drivers also noticed some jerkiness when the engine turned on, and maybe off, as it worked out its collaboration with the electric drive motor. Then there’s the fact that the most efficient hybrids didn’t have the familiar shift feeling because they didn’t use conventional transmissions. Toyota and its Lexus luxury brand, in particular, used what the manufacturer calls a power-split device, which has similar properties to a continuously variable automatic transmission. This is what leads to some of the unexpected noises, but we’ll get to that in No. 3 below.

This hybrid drawback was like our classic impression of cough medicine: To deliver results, it had to taste bad. Or in this case, to deliver impressive mileage, the acceleration had to be somewhat wonky. It was kind of true; other manufacturers dabbled in hybrids, and they even accelerated better, but they didn’t have the impressive mileage of a Toyota Prius (except maybe Ford’s hybrids, which used a similar system).

Fortunately, much of what’s described above has improved. Even Toyota, which still uses the same fundamental design, has refined its hybrid system to improve responsiveness and smoothness. Other brands, which struggled initially, have managed to use conventional step-gear transmissions and other strategies in their hybrids that feel much more natural and deliver the mileage, as well. They’re not perfect matches, but they’ve come a long way.

It doesn’t hurt that many non-hybrids now use CVTs, so the feel of a conventional hybrid isn’t quite as foreign, or exclusive, as it once was.

2. Braking Might Feel Weird

All hybrids use regenerative braking, whereby the drive motor or motors double as generators that capture the car’s inertia — when braking, coasting or going downhill — and store it in the battery pack for reuse. Without this feature, hybrids wouldn’t be as efficient as they are, but it makes the braking feel weird and, in almost all cases, inferior to a well-executed conventional braking system in a non-hybrid. At minimum, the regeneration has to transition to the conventional brake pads under heavier braking, and this can lead to a grabbier pedal feel. The pedal can also feel mushy and artificial.

But echoing No. 1, braking has improved over the years. Many drivers won’t even notice a difference when driving a new hybrid versus a used one, and — strangely enough — non-hybrids are moving toward braking technology that mirrors what hybrids have (for various advantages we won’t go into). So in braking, too, the differences between hybrid and non-hybrid continue to narrow.

3. It Might Make Unexpected Sounds

The sound for which hybrids are most known, but not appreciated, is droning — but again, this problem isn’t as widespread as it once was. The reasons are arguably fourfold:

    • First, you usually start out under electric propulsion alone, which is whisper-quiet. When the engine turns on, the difference is going to be jarring no matter what.
    • Second, the continuously variable nature of some transmissions (or power-split devices) allows the gas engine to rev higher than a normal car would under the same circumstances, without the familiar relief of an upshift and associated rpm drop. The powertrain’s job is to give you the most power when needed and keep the engine in its most efficient rpm range — not to sound like a normal car. People find this pretty irritating, as they do in non-hybrids with CVTs.
    • Third, the difference is that this is a hybrid, so it really has to maximize EPA numbers because everyone’s watching. If the choice is between dropping 0.5 mpg or being a little more annoying, the engineers are going to choose annoying every single time.
    • Fourth, in the same vein, high mileage comes from many things, and one of them is light weight. You know what’s heavy? Noise insulation. Historically, the race to higher mpg has made for some noisy hybrids.

Fortunately, these things have also improved. More recent hybrids have been designed to address the noise complaints, and the growing crop that use conventional transmissions solve it naturally by shifting as expected (apparently it’s acceptable for a vehicle to be loud, so long as it’s not loud at the wrong time).

Also be on the lookout for electronically synthesized pedestrian-warning sounds generated at speeds up to 18.6 mph, which many hybrids and EVs already have. These will eventually be required, though deadlines have been extended. Some are more audible inside the cabin than others, and some sound, well, weirder than others.

4. Your Mileage Will Diminish in Winter

People who own hybrid vehicles in more extreme winter climates soon learn their mileage drops noticeably — roughly 30% to 34% at 20 degrees versus 77 degrees Fahrenheit, according to the EPA. Why? Many reasons exist, and only a few are related to the car being a hybrid. The truth is that non-hybrid vehicles are also less efficient in the cold (by 15% to 24% in the conditions above, the EPA notes). Here’s a sampling of other reasons mileage drops in the winter:

    • Colder lubricants and other fluids result in more friction.
    • Winter grades of gasoline have less energy per gallon.
    • Slick roads compromise traction and waste fuel.
    • Engines run longer or at higher rpm, or both, to maintain optimal temperature for themselves and critical pollution controls, such as catalytic converters.

This last one takes a big bite out of hybrid mileage because the engine can’t stay off as long as it otherwise would. Running cabin heat quickly saps the engine’s reserve of waste heat, which is normally abundant, and hastens its restart. Additionally, a cold battery has lower capacity than a warmer one, which translates to less room for regenerative braking storage and lower overall efficiency.

Echoing some earlier observations, the problem might be worse with hybrids, but it’s also more noticeable here because hybrid owners pay more attention to their mileage overall.

5. You Might Need Fewer Brake Jobs

People who buy hybrid vehicles look to save money on gasoline, but they might also save money on routine brake jobs. Because regenerative braking uses the electric motor or motors as generators to slow the vehicle without friction, the brake pads or shoes make far less contact with the discs or drums than they do in a non-hybrid. As a result, these parts can last longer.

We didn’t reach this point without some lessons, though. In earlier hybrids, less frequently used brake systems proved susceptible to corrosion because they didn’t move enough and didn’t heat up, which vaporizes moisture. In this case, brake jobs were certainly needed. Some manufacturers have modified their designs to compensate for these different conditions in hybrid and electric cars and extend brake component life.

6. You’ll Get a Long Powertrain Warranty

Maybe it started with fear of the unknown some 20 years ago, but fortunately for hybrid buyers, generous powertrain warranties remain. Take a look at any manufacturer for model-year 2021 and you’ll find the hybrid models offer eight or 10 years, or 100,000 miles, on hybrid system components regardless of the coverage that non-hybrids receive from the same brand. Toyota even ups its protection to 150,000 miles for the battery pack.

Though the fear of a completely dead battery and expensive replacement remains among some shoppers, the warranties should ease concerns and experience has proven this incidence is quite rare. What’s common, even expected, is for batteries to lose about 20% of their capacity over the course of their lifetime. This equals a commensurate drop in range for EVs, or a noticeable (though not catastrophic) efficiency decrease for hybrids.

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