Even before prices began hovering at the $3/gallon mark, rising gas prices were generating increased interest in hybrid cars. Proponents of such vehicles, including current owners, tend to laud them, preaching about better fuel efficiency and environmental friendliness. Others remain unconvinced, pointing out that poorer performance and smaller profiles are not worth the trade-off in benefits. The reality is that both points of view are partly correct, as shown in the following list of common hybrid-related myths.
First-generation hybrid cars like the Honda Insight and Toyota Prius are pretty small. The Prius, for example is considered to be a mid-sized sedan, but it's a tight squeeze for the average family of four and all their paraphernalia. However, Lexus and Ford offer hybrid SUV's (the RX 400h and Escape, respectively), either of which have enough space for people, pets, and any required gear, and as demand for alternatively-powered cars continues to grow, and gas prices continue to rise (or at least, to hover where they are) choices of hybrids will continue to expand. Cheryl Morrissette of FineTuning.com, suggests in fact, that most automobile manufacturers will offer some kind of hybrid by 2007.
Early hybrids had a reputation for sluggish acceleration, but their electric motors have always offered the benefit of instant torque. The Honda Insight and Toyota Prius do take a few seconds to get going. "When accelerating from a stop, there's sometimes a tiny lag before and a very slight lurch as the gas engine turns on, but it's no more noticeable than the turbo engaging in a sports car," says Prius-owner John Andrews, and according to anecdotal evidence at sites like priuschat.com, these vehicles have no problem maintaining prevailing freeway speeds of up to 85 mph.
In addition, larger, newer models, like the Ford Escape and Honda Accord hybrids, as well as the Lexus RX 400h actually accelerate faster than their gas-only counterparts while still offering better-than-average fuel economy.
One potential turn-off for buyers considering hybrid cars is price. It is true that the initial cost of such a car is generally $3,000 - $6,000 higher than a similarly-sized conventional vehicle, but there are post-purchase savings that may off-set the initial outlay. As an example, many hybrids are sold with upgraded stereo systems as a standard feature, rather than an optional expense, and some qualify for the 2005 "clean fuel" federal tax deduction (up to $2,000).
While it doesn't save money, some states allow even single-occupant hybrid vehicles to use "diamond" or "HOV" (high occupancy vehicle) lanes. Fuel economy, however, is the largest attractor of buyers, and while not every driver is really going to get 49-53 miles per gallon, driving a hybrid still means less frequent, and less expensive, visits to the gas station. It is suggested at greenhybrid.com that, if fuel prices remain where they are, many hybrid-owners may break even on their purchases, over the life of their cars.
Maintenance costs are another decision-making factor, but hybrid maintenance, as long as it is not battery-related, is not that different than maintaining a "regular" car. Most normal mechanics can handle the usual wear and tear issues, and owners of smaller hybrids say that oil changes are less frequent, recommended every 5,000 miles, instead of every 3,000. However, it should be noted that if the manufacturer's warranty becomes voided, a replacement battery pack can cost as much as $4,000.
Rumors of increased insurance costs are inconclusive. Many insurance companies simply don't have enough data, or enough insured hybrid cars, to give general quotes. Information at sites like greenhybrid.com and finetuning.com, however, suggests that the safety ratings on these cars is higher-than-average, which can be a positive factor in computing insurance premiums.
Aside from saving money on gas, it is the notion that driving a hybrid is helping to save the environment that often prompts purchases. The reality is that emissions results have as much to do with the drivers as the cars themselves. Drivers who modify their driving techniques exploit their electric motors to maximum effect, and, in smaller cars like the Insight and Prius, can beat the EPA numbers. Those who do not - especially those who drive the hybrid SUV's - may be disappointed to find that their fuel emissions are the same - or worse than those of similar conventionally-powered vehicles.
As with any car purchase, the choice to switch to a hybrid is one at least partly dictated by the buyer's lifestyle, as well as financial and environmental considerations. A single- or two-person household, where commutes are normal and most travel is done close to home will likely gain more from hybrid-ownership than a family of five or six.
Still, the future of hybrids is a bright one, and while most current drivers are high-income earners, women, and Californians, sites like hybridcars.com are predicting that buying trends will soon change, bringing these vehicles, and their successors, into more general use.