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10 Tips For Buying Your First Hybrid - Part 1

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10 Tips For Buying Your First Hybrid - Part 1

If you are in the market for a new passenger car between now and the end of this year, you should at least consider a hybrid model. Leave aside concerns for  carbon footprint. In this hybrid car buyers' guide, we are more interested in the value for money aspects of buying a hybrid.

If the idea of buying a better equipped, fully imported from Japan, higher range car at discounted prices tickles your fancy, then read on.

In most countries, a hybrid model is priced higher than an equivalent regular internal combustion engine model. Malaysia is one of the few exceptions, thanks for generous tax rebates for hybrid vehicles.

Take the 2013 Toyota Prius for example, which is in our country is priced RM 10,000 lower than a lesser equipped base model 2013 Toyota Camry 2.0E. Elsewhere, a Prius is usually priced about 10 percent higher than a base Toyota Camry for 2013. While some may complain that the Malaysian market Prius is still way more expensive than in US or Japan, the debate is pointless to local car buyers, who have to choose between what is offered to them here. The reason behind the Prius' high selling price is explained here.

Back to the topic, similar to the Prius' price positioning, a 2013 Honda Civic Hybrid typically sits at the top of the Civic range, about 15 percent more expensive than Civic 2.0. In Malaysia, the Civic Hybrid is about 10 percent cheaper than a Honda Civic 2.0S.

The current import and excise duty exemption for hybrid vehicles below 2,000cc, which started on 1-January 2011, will expire on 31-December 2013.

With six months left before the incentive expires, there is no indication from the Ministry of International Trade and Industry on whether will the incentive be extended for another year. Considering the new National Automotive Policy aims to grant tax rebates only to locally assembled energy efficient vehicles, we don't expect this to happen.

There are currently six import and excise duties exempted hybrid models from two manufacturers (Toyota and Honda) on sale in Malaysia. The 2013 Honda Jazz Hybrid is locally assembled from completely knocked down (CKD) kits, the 2013 Honda Civic Hybrid is imported completely built-up (CBU) from Thailand (as of May 2013, earlier models came from Japan) while the rest are imported from Japan.

There are several more luxury hybrid models from Lexus, Infiniti, Audi, BMW and Porsche. However these models are an entirely different category of cars and we will leave them out for now.

Remarks for table above:

1. Unless stated otherwise, all fuel economy figures are based on European models, tested under the European combined driving test cycle. Actual fuel economy is highly dependent on driving style and road conditions. The same model sold in different countries may feature a slightly different engine tuning to meet local emission regulations, fuel quality and driving conditions. Variations in tyre specification for different model grades may also affect actual fuel economy results. Malaysia does not have any specific gazetted methodology in testing fuel economy performance. The figures above are only meant to serve as a guide and should not be used for direct comparisons.

2. Based on Australian Design Rules driving test cycle, The 2013 Toyota Prius c is not sold in Europe. 

Tip 1 : The Basics.

Regular petrol powered internal combustion engines are good for high speed driving, but they are grossly inefficient in urban traffic, where cars spend most of the time in. Electric motors on the other hand, are excellent at urban traffic but are weaker at higher speeds. The same electric motor can also work as a generator when the driver lifts off the accelerator to coast or applies the brakes, thus recovering energy that would otherwise be lost as heat.

Hybrid vehicles achieve optimal efficiency by combining the best attributes of both a regular petrol engine and an electric motor. When a hybrid vehicle is idling, the petrol engine shuts down automatically, firing up immediately when power is required. This is the basic working principle of all hybrid vehicles.

Tip 2 : Choosing The Body Style.

Hybrid models like the Toyota Prius and Honda Insight are designed with the Kamm-tail's principle of a truncated rear to achieve the lowest aerodynamic drag co-efficient. Principles of aerodynamics dictate that a gently sloping rear truncating abruptly creates the least aero-drag. It is no surprise that these two models, although odd looking, have a significantly better fuel economy than other hybrid models.

However, Kamm-tail design tends to compromise rear head room. This is more apparent in the smaller Honda Insight than in the larger Toyota Prius.

Models like the Honda Jazz Hybrid, Honda Civic Hybrid and Toyota Prius c have a more conventionally styled body. Although these models have a slightly poorer fuel economy than the earlier mentioned purpose built Kamm-tailed models, rear headroom is more generous in these regular looking cars.

As the saying goes, there are no free lunches. Something has got to give. Buyers will need to decide which takes a higher priority, rear headroom space, purchase price or fuel economy?

To read more tips on how to choose a right car for you, go here.

Tip 3 : Not All Hybrids Are Created Equal.

When deciding which hybrid to buy, it is important to understand that there are generally two types of hybrid vehicles - mild hybrids and full hybrids.

As the name implies, full hybrids are superior, for these models can be driven on electric power alone, albeit for a short distance. As such, full hybrids drive much smoother in stop-go traffic. The switchover between electric and petrol power is hardly noticeable. However, this superior technology comes at a very high cost, as reflected by the price tag of the Toyota Prius c and Prius, the only two full hybrid models in this group.

Full hybrid models like the Toyota Prius can be driven off purely in electric power (above).

Mild hybrids however, continue to rely on the petrol engine to drive the car, thus limiting its fuel saving potential. The electric motor only provides additional assistance to the petrol engine rather than as an independent source for driving motion.

As the petrol engine needs to be started before the car can move from standstill, the driving experience in a mild hybrid is less smooth. Although less sophisticated, mild hybrids are also a lot cheaper to buy and for many buyers, it is a reasonable compromise.

In some very rare circumstances, it is possible for mild hybrids to glide along in electric power alone, but only for a very brief period. This is only possible once the car has achieved sufficient speed on a smooth flat road.

Besides mild and full hybrids, you may also come across others terms like series hybrids, parallel hybrids or combined (series-parallel) hybrids. These refer to a different, more technical approach of classifying hybrid vehicles.

To keep things simple, only parallel and series-parallel hybrids are applicable in our market. Series hybrids refer to models like Chevrolet Volt, whose 1.4-litre engine doesn't drive the wheels directly, but instead turns the generator which supplies power the recharge the batteries, which in turn drives an electric motor that propels the car.

Parallel hybrids are the most common types on our roads. This category is further broken down into mild-parallel hybrids (Honda hybrids) and full-parallel hybrids (Infiniti, Audi, BMW and Porsche hybrids). In the case of full-parallel hybrids, the vehicle can be powered either by the petrol engine or electric motor independently or in unison. 

Electric motor in a mild-parallel type model like the Civic Hybrid can either assist the petrol engine or charge the hybrid battery, but not both (above).

Series-parallel hybrids are the most complicated types. All Toyota and Lexus hybrids are series-parallel hybrids. Using a power-split device, series-parallel hybrids are able to use the electric motors to drive the car while simultaneously charge the hybrid battery.

Using a power-split device, electric motors in a series-parallel hybrid like the Toyota Prius can drive the vehicle and charge the hybrid battery at the same time (above).

When test driving a hybrid model, take it to empty parking lot to simulate stop-go traffic, stopping and inching along between 10 to 20 km/h. It would be even better, if you can experience the car in a heavily congested area. This would give you a good indication of the vehicle's smoothness in stop-go traffic and see if it is acceptable to you. 

Tip 4 : Evaluate The Air-Conditioning Performance

Some of the earlier generation hybrid models lack an electrically driven powered air-conditioning compressor and are unable to maintain maximum cooling performance when the engine is shut down during idling. For these models, the air-conditioning's blower will continue to function when the engine is shut down, but cooling ability will become noticeably weaker.

Among the hybrid models mentioned earlier, only the Honda Civic Hybrid, Toyota Prius and Toyota Prius c are equipped with an electrically driven air-conditioning compressor. These models are able to maintain the preset cabin temperature irrespective of whether the petrol engine is running or not.

For other models like the Honda Jazz Hybrid, Honda Insight and Honda CR-Z, air-conditioning cooling performance can be improved by disabling the ECON driving mode, but this will shorten the petrol engine's shut down interval, compromising its fuel economy and sending more judder into the cabin as the petrol engine kicks-in more frequently.

But unless you are driving in a hot afternoon with four adults on-board, the air-conditioning's cooling performance is still acceptable. We recommend potential buyers to go for a test drive in a hot afternoon to try it for themselves to see if this is within their expectations.

Tip 5 : Myth - Hybrid Batteries Need Replacement

In the photo above, this second generation Prius taxi operated by Black and White Taxis in Australia has clocked over 550,000 km. The car's original hybrid battery was only replaced at 500,000 km. Seen here is Black and White Taxis operator Graham Boundy. His company's hybrid taxis fleet clocks an average of 200,000 km a year. 

Hybrid vehicles have two types of batteries, a regular 12V auxiliary battery, which powers the vehicle accessories and a much larger traction battery which drives the electric motor. For the sake of simplicity, we will refer to the traction battery as a hybrid battery.

Yes hybrid batteries are expensive to replace, costing about RM 10,000 a set, depending on battery type and vehicle model. However, as hybrids become more mainstream, technology is optimized and manufacturers achieve greater economies of scale, the cost for replacing hybrid batteries have been dropping by nearly 50 percent every five years.

However, in the same way you don't decide on a vehicle purchase by considering how much it costs to replace the engine, concerns on hybrid battery replacement cost are moot but understandable.

As mentioned earlier, there are two batteries in a hybrid car. The 12V battery will have a limited lifespan and needs to be replaced periodically, just like any car. The hybrid battery however, is an integral part of the car and is designed to last the lifespan of the car. For most manufacturers, this means a minimum service life of 15-years or 240,000 km. How long will it actually last is highly dependent on the maintenance habits and driving style, just like any regular engine.

Unlike a regular batteries, these hybrid batteries are purpose built for automotive applications. Sophisticated power management system that keeps track of every single cell within battery. Should the temperature in any particular cell rises beyond a certain limit, the cell will be shut down, while still maintaining overall functionalities of the battery.

The same system also prevents the battery from being fully charged or discharged, also known as deep cycling. Deep cycles wears out the battery faster. In a Toyota hybrid for example, the power management system prevents deep cycling by keeping hybrid battery's charge level between 45 to 75 percent. As you can see, the battery's capacity is intentionally over-engineered. This reduces stress on the cells and prolongs its lifespan.

Although hybrids are still a novelty here, it is actually a very mature technology. In the case of Toyota, the technology is already in its third generation, with over 5 million units sold worldwide since 1997.

In the US, Consumer Reports recently tested a first generation Prius with over 330,000 km on the odometer and another second generation model with over 320,000 km. Both cars are still running on the original battery with only minimal drop in performance.

There were some issues with battery reliability for the previous generation Honda Civic Hybrid, but these has already been solved in the current generation Civic Hybrid, which uses a very different lithium-ion battery.

What hybrid owners need to be concerned of is not the hybrid battery but the power control unit. Early generation Prius models had issues with overheating power control unit. But the third generation model currently on sale is equipped with a separate coolant reservoir for the power control unit.

Keep an eye on the coolant level and its condition, follow the maintenance schedule and drive it gently, there is no reason to be concerned of reliability issues with today's hybrid models.

For Part 2 of our hybrid cars buyer's, go here. 

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