For automakers, that’s often part of the point.
Electric vehicle sales continue to grow every year, and more companies announce plans to ditch gasoline engines altogether. But high fuel costs and the relatively high prices of fully electric cars have meant that hybrids can still help drivers save money. And customers are purchasing hybrids in high numbers, even if they don’t always recognize they’re buying one.
But at the same time, hybrid technology has become more common. And, while fully electric vehicles carry a certain cultural cache, carmakers are often cautious about calling out their gasoline-electric hybrids. While many hybrids are proudly billed as such — the Hyundai Tucson Hybrid and Ford Escape Hybrid, for instance — others, often vehicles with mild hybrid systems, include that information only in technical documents or the owner’s manual.
Hybrid market share has more than doubled from 2017, going from 2.0% of the market to 5.1% of the market, according to data from the automotive web site Edmunds.com. But that doesn’t capture all hybrid vehicles, Edmunds.com analyst Ivan Drury said. It’s impossible to know exactly how many hybrid trucks, cars and SUVs are being sold because they’re only counted as hybrids in industry statistics when the manufacturer, itself, calls it a hybrid, or gives it a separate model name, said Drury. Often, carmakers don’t specifically call out hybrid systems any more than they would another engine or transmission feature. That means that a Toyota Rav4 Hybrid might be counted while a Toyota Tundra i-Force Max pick-up, which is also a hybrid, might not.
The differences in how vehicles marketed — sometimes with a chrome “Hybrid” badge on the back and sometimes with barely any mention — can come down to how the technology is perceived by different types of customers.
“There might be a little bit of a stigma with the word ‘hybrid,'” said Bill Visnic, editorial director at the Society of Automotive Engineers.
Some car shoppers fear hybrid could mean “weeny” performance, he said.
When people think of hybrids, they tend to think of the icon of the type, the Toyota Prius. The Prius, and other hybrids like it, have batteries that store up energy as the car drives. That electricity is then used to power an electric motor that can drive the wheels at low speeds — or even at high speeds if the gas pedal is not pressed hard — and provide an extra push during acceleration. But modern hybrids have moved beyond the Prius’ technology.
From “mild” to “full” hybrids
Many modern cars have what are called “mild hybrid” systems. These vehicles have smaller, lighter batteries and a less powerful electric motor than so-called full hybrids. The electric motor generally can’t drive the car on its own, but it can provide assistance whenever the vehicle is starting off from a stop. The gas engine still does most of the work, but the electric motor provides an extra push that eases the gas engine’s work. Because of their smaller batteries, mild-hybrid technology is easier to put into a vehicle without taking up cargo or passenger space for battery packs. They also don’t add as much cost to the vehicle, making them easier to sell to buyers not entirely focused on fuel economy.
Mild hybrid systems can be found in surprising places, like some Jeep Wrangler and Ram 1500 full-size pickup models. The optional mild hybrid eTorque system in the Ram 1500 allows the truck’s gas engine to turn off when the truck comes to a stop, allowing the truck to run off of its battery as it sits still for up to about 10 minutes. (Not every vehicle that turns its engine off at a stop is necessarily a mild hybrid, though.) When the driver releases the brake pedal, an electric motor can start moving the truck forward for less than half a second while the gas engine starts up again.
The mild hybrid system adds up to two extra miles per gallon, mostly in city driving, according to the manufacturer.
Other cars have Prius-style full hybrid systems but just don’t market them that way. The Toyota Tundra i-Force Max, for instance, is a full hybrid pickup truck, but you’d never know from looking at it. It can shut off its engine and drive sometimes using just its electric motor. But even on the gauge cluster, there’s no indication that truck has a hybrid system. There’s a gauge showing the amount of power coming from the electric motor, but it’s labeled simply “Max.”
The Tundra i-Force Max doesn’t make a big deal out of its hybrid nature, said Craig Herring, a Toyota engineer, because, during market research, potential customers showed no interest in buying a hybrid. But they were interested in more towing and hauling power without an impact on fuel economy. The Tundra’s hybrid system is tuned for maximum power rather than primarily fuel economy. In the Tundra line-up, the i-Force Max takes the place of what might have been a thirstier V8 engine option for customers who want maximum towing and hauling capability. With its emphasis on power, though, the hybrid Tundra is less fuel efficient than Ford’s hybrid F-150, but it provides slightly more horsepower and torque.
Some vehicles, like the new Audi A3 compact sedan, are somewhere in between mild and full hybrids. It’s technically a mild hybrid, but it’s not all that mild. As in a full hybrid, an electric motor can move the relatively small and light A3, Audi’s entry level model, at low speeds or when coasting on flat roads or downhill. Similar technology has been available on larger Audi models in Europe, said Anthony Garbis, head of product planning for Audi of America, but it was felt US customers might not appreciate it on those larger, more luxurious cars.
“We always thought it was a bit odd to have your A8 [full-size luxury sedan] coast down the highway,” he said. “So with the A3, it seemed like the right audience, the right price and the right technology to introduce the coasting function.”
And with Audi moving towards a fully electric line-up in just over a decade, there’s less focus now on this sort of technology, he said. Now, Audi is looking ahead to when its cars will have no gas engine at all.
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