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Confused About Going Green? You're Not Alone

On the Road Cover Story

cars.com On the Road Weekly Publication

11:04 AM EDT, May 10, 2012

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By Jim Gorzelany

CTW Features

With gasoline prices poised to reach record highs, many car shoppers are setting their sights on models that use electricity – either in part or as the sole means of propulsion – to help reduce their fuel costs.

However, with at least three types of hybrid gas/battery-powered systems and two distinct approaches to electric cars on the market, a study conducted by the research firm Synovate in Detroit, Mich. found that “a majority of new-car buyers are confused about the varied options available, and that the lack of knowledge creates a significant barrier to sales.” This is despite that fact that hybrids have been around for a decade and electric cars appeared a century ago.

To help clear the confusion, here’s a look at the various hybrid and electric systems available.

A hybrid vehicle comes powered by a conventional gasoline engine that’s augmented by an electric motor/generator and a self-charging battery pack. The engine automatically shuts down while decelerating and at idle in most situations to help maximize mileage. In a “full” hybrid, like the 51/48-mpg (city/highway) Toyota Prius, the electric motor solely operates the vehicle at lower speeds for limited periods. “Mild” hybrids like the 25/36-mpg Buick LaCrosse eAssist use the motor to modestly boost the gas engine, with most fuel economy gains registered by the stop-start function.

A hybrid is best for those who primarily drive around town, when the electric motor does more of the work. Fuel economy gains can be major or relatively minor, depending on the model, with some hybrids commanding price premiums that owners may never be able to recover in gas savings.

A new plug-in hybrid version of the Prius uses a lithium-ion battery to enable all-electric operation for a maximum range of around 13 miles, though it needs to be tethered to a wall socket at night to reach a full charge. Once the battery is depleted to a certain point the vehicle operates like a conventional hybrid. Toyota says it gets 49 mpg running solely on gasoline and the equivalent of 87-mpg when the all-electric mode is factored. A plug-in Ford Escape Hybrid crossover SUV will debut later this year.

While the fuel economy gains here are more significant, the price premium involved is costlier than a standard hybrid. The Prius plug-in, for example, costs $32,000.

An electric vehicle runs solely on battery power. Unfortunately, electric cars have a finite range on a charge – the compact Nissan Leaf and soon to be released Ford Focus Electric boast a maximum range of around 100 miles – which can be significantly lower based on temperature, traffic and use of accessories. EVs usually feature a “limp home” mode that can help a motorist eke out extra miles for when the juice is running out, but there’s still the potential for an unprepared motorist to become stranded with a depleted battery.

To circumvent this problem, the Chevrolet Volt adds a small gasoline engine that runs a generator to power the car’s electric motor once the onboard batteries are depleted. It runs on electricity for 25-50 miles on a charge, with its range beyond that limited only by the amount of gas in the tank. The just-released Fisker Karma operates on a similar system.

Electric cars are expensive, however; the Volt is priced at $39,145, with the Leaf at $35,200. However, electric car buyers can avail themselves of a one-time $7,500 federal income-tax credit.

Depending on the model, a full battery charge using 220-volt current could take between four and eight hours or much longer on a standard 110-volt circuit. Some sources peg the cost to charge an electric car at about one-third to one-fourth the cost of gasoline to drive the same car the same distance. The Leaf is rated at the equivalent of 106/92 mpg. Unfortunately, some homeowners may need to upgrade the electric service in their garages to accommodate a plug-in vehicle and/or install a 220-volt charging station, which may incur several hundred or thousands of dollars in added costs.

And there’s another fact to consider: That conventionally powered autos are getting better mileage than ever. Many compact cars now top out at 40 mpg on the highway, with a few diesel-powered larger cars able to boast similar fuel economy at more affordable prices.