Saturday, May 23, 2009

Good Weight: Hybrid Values

Automakers sold some 308,000 hybrid vehicles in the U.S. in 2008. Part gas motor, part electric motor, these vehicles are the source of some confusion. They are not electric cars, they do not plug in to electric outlets to recharge, and they are not a "new" invention. Fact is, hybrid vehicles have been around for over a century.

According to James L. Benson, author of "Hybrid Vehicles - What They Are, How They Work And Why You Should Buy One," today’s modern hybrid began with Dr. Ferdinand Porsche, the designer of the original Volkswagen Beetle. In 1901, Porsche designed and created the “Mixte,” a car that powered a generator with a gasoline engine. The generator then powered a series of small electric motors, creating a battery pack.

The Mixte was based on an even older design of Porsche’s called the “System Lohner-Porsche.”

Later, in 1915, Woods Motor Vehicle created the “Dual Power,” a car that ran on an electric motor below 15 mph and gasoline above that. This car was in production until about 1918, but since few people actually had the money to purchase a car, let alone a hybrid car, and with the invention of the self-starting gasoline engine, the idea eventually fizzled out.

Inventors tinkered with hybrids throughout the 20th century, but no ideas stuck until the 1990s, when the Japanese car company Toyota launched their Toyota Prius. The Prius was the first hybrid car available to the masses, and it was the result of decades of research, starting with a 1977 prototype, the Toyota Sports 800 Gas Turbine.

In 2000, the Prius became available in the United States, after success in the Asian market and the successful of 1999 launch of the Honda Insight hybrid. Demand for hybrids has been exploding ever since, and car companies are struggling to keep up the supply without flooding the market.

Hybrids cost $3,000-6,000 more than comparable gas-only vehicles, but are less costly to maintain, according to Consumer Reports, which has been tracking their history for 9 years. Replacing battery packs in hybrids can cost up to $3,000, but may not be necessary. According to manufacturers, battery pack on hybrids are designed to last the life of the vehicle.

The miles-per-gallon difference between gas-powered cars and comparable hybrids is about 40 percent, or 26 mpg for a standard vehicle versus 44 mpg for the Toyota Prius, acording to Consumer Reports.

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