2008 Hybrid Buying Guide

This year, green cars and SUVs are better than ever. How do you choose which hybrid is right for you?
By Alison Lakin, Associate Editor
In 2008, hybrids are still the new kids on the block. They've been on the market for less than a decade, with the Honda Insight debuting in 1999. However, considering how explosive sales figures have been the last few years, the hybrid's domination on the road might well be imminent.

We think this is reason enough for you to take the time to understand what these environmentally friendly vehicles are all about and to choose which model best suits your needs.

Which One Is Right For You?
We hate to tell you, but there are multiple names for different kinds of hybrids. They are still so new, with the technology changing constantly, that the market hasn't settled on a naming scheme as of yet. This makes hybrids difficult to categorize and presents a confusing terminology that is much more difficult to wrap your head around.

Full Hybrids
To make things easier, we'll use the term full hybrid to describe vehicles that can use their electric motor as the sole source of propulsion for low- to mid-speed driving. Their electric motor and fuel engine can work independently from each other or as a collective unit. Of all the hybrids, full hybrids get the best gas mileage because the car can commence driving exclusively with the electric motor and potentially continue for up to speeds of 30 mph. The specifics of hybrid machinery can be pretty complicated.

"There are three important components in our hybrid vehicles, in addition to the regular internal combustion engine: MG1 (motor-generator), MG2 and the high voltage battery," explains Justus Dobrin, Account Manager for Toyota, Lexus and Scion. "MG1 functions as a starter motor. It's driven by the engine, and it also functions as the main generator for the car. MG2 is the traction motor. It propels the car and it's also the motor generator that's connected directly to regenerative braking and coasting. These things work backwards and forwards providing power to the wheels and also generating power to charge the battery, the third hybrid power source."

Regenerative braking is a technology that allows the use of the electric motor to help stop the car instead of the friction brakes, while restoring the battery's power in the process. Most have an engine off at idle feature, allowing the car to shut off its fuel engine when stopped. At the release of the brake, the car will turn on again. In urban driving conditions, both of these features help to greatly reduce fuel consumption.

A downside to the full hybrid is that there is a noticeable reduction of power when driving at higher speeds - like on the freeway - or towing large loads. If you plan on regularly needing power at that level, the technology might be too impractical for you.

The 2-Mode System
The 2-mode hybrid system used by GM is a type of full hybrid with the only difference being that the vehicle has two electric motors instead of one.

Brian Corbett, Manager - GM Hybrid Communications, describes the system: "The 2-mode system has two electrically variable modes, and these adjust depending on the driving situation. One of the modes is operational in gears one and two and is used when carrying light loads. The second mode operates anything above gears three and four, which helps in carrying large loads and during higher speeds. So you have two electrically variable modes that work together to give more speed to the automatic transmission. And the reason we've done that is that having that mechanical capability allows our system to be more scalable, more capable."

With this technology, SUVs and trucks using the 2-mode system have more power to tow heavy loads. The problems that the other full hybrids have, like the reduction of power at high speeds, don't afflict this hybrid system.

For 2008, this technology is limited to the GMC Yukon and the Chevrolet Tahoe, but more vehicles will roll out in the near future, including the Cadillac Escalade Hybrid.

Mild Hybrids
Mild hybrids are distinct from full hybrids because of one very important feature: their use of the fuel engine when starting. Full hybrids can accelerate from standstill using only the electric motor and continue with just that for low speeds. The mild hybrid must engage the gas engine when accelerating from a full stop. Essentially, the electric motor exists to supplement the gas engine, a fact that increases fuel consumption significantly.

According to Corbett, the system "provides the engine-off at idle feature, which shuts off the engine at idle while the battery maintains function of the lights, radio, etc. It provides electric power combined with the gas engine, thereby relying less on the gas engine for acceleration."

Similar to the others, these hybrids use regenerative braking to encourage less gulping and more sipping of the fuel. Saturn's VUE Green Line is a good example of a mild hybrid. Employing almost all the hybrid technology, the only thing that keeps it from getting mileage in the Prius range is its inability to accelerate using only the electric motor.

Vehicle Types
You'll be happy to know that this year brings some exciting new models, as well as some revamped favorites, like the 2008 Chevrolet Malibu, a mild hybrid, and the 2008 Mercury Mariner Hybrid, a full hybrid. If you're desperate for a new hybrid truck, you're out of luck since there aren't any new models for 2008. Don't fret though, 2009 is looking promising in that category.

The allure of some hybrids is that they're in a form already recognizable to you, like the Toyota Camry Hybrid. "The Camry Hybrid continues to be our low cost of ownership vehicle," says Bob Zeinstra, National Manager at Toyota of Brand and Product Marketing. "It has reliability, quality and durability and great retainment of value. It also capitalizes on brand loyalty."

Zeinstra adds, "Part of our corporate direction was to look at hybrids as a performance enhancement and an mpg enhancement. The Camry is optimized for fuel-efficiency, like the Prius. The Toyota Highlander Hybrid is optimized for performance."

If, as a buyer, you've been disappointed by the lack of high-end hybrid vehicles, this year will be good for you as the market is brimming with a larger range of upscale models. The new-for-2008 Lexus LS 600h L starts at $104,000 and combines premium luxury with the quality of environmental awareness that you can find in a Prius. The car isn't exactly sacrificing power either.

"The engine is built to generate roughly 370hp. Bolt on the MG1, MG2 and high voltage battery and you're adding on anywhere between 50 and 80 horses just with this second engine," says Dobrin. "So this hybrid technology is developed to create a higher performing car and, at the same time, a vehicle that meets super low emissions standards."

The Costs
Unfortunately, because of its relative newness in the automotive world, hybrid technology is still expensive. Expect to pay more for a full hybrid version of an existing car. The 2008 Honda Civic sedan - a full hybrid - starts at $15,010 while the hybrid version will set you back over $7,000 more, at $22,600. A difference this large isn't exactly going to be covered by gas savings. Astonishingly, you'll be shelling out $15,000 more for the hybrid version of the Chevrolet Tahoe.

"The 2-mode is the premium hybrid system," Corbett explains. "It's going to cost a little more to have it in your vehicle. But you'll get more of a fuel economy improvement than using our regular GM hybrid system."

With mild hybrids, the cost will be even more startling because, for all that money you're giving away initially, your gas savings will be diminutive in comparison. You can get a base Saturn VUE XE for $21,875. Until the two-mode model comes out in the fall, the current hybrid version of the VUE will set you back $25,995 but only net you 4-6 more MPG, a disappointing difference.

In fact, there's not a whole lot of point to buying a hybrid purely for financial reasons; the purchase is still about the environmental impact. You may be paying more, but you'll be contributing to a reduction in gas emissions and your purchase will contribute to the growing interest in hybrid technology.

The world of hybrids can only improve from here on out. The changes in the field seem to be growing exponentially, and 2008 is an exciting example of automotive companies taking longer strides to give the consumer more environmentally friendly car buying options.

6 Tips Before Buying A Hybrid

Watch the pricing:
Some hybrids are much more expensive than their non-hybrid counterparts. In addition to the hybrid engine, check to see what you'll be getting for the price.

Review the gas mileage:
Some models may have the hybrid moniker, but they won't necessarily give you much more in the way of gas mileage, sometimes only 1-3 mpg better.

Check the cargo space:
Because of their large batteries, a few hybrids lack the same amount of cargo space as other cars. This holds true especially for SUVs.

Research tax breaks:
As an incentive to buying a hybrid, the government has issued varying levels of tax breaks for your purchase. Find out which hybrids have them and which don't.

We've found that the costs to maintain a hybrid are roughly the same as regular cars. In addition, manufacturers generally have longer warranties for hybrids, so you have extra coverage in case something goes wrong with the more expensive electrical components or battery pack - a win for you.

Research different models:
You aren't limited to one hybrid type anymore. Test drive a few different types and models and see which type fits you the best.

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