Honda and Toyota were the first manufacturers in the market with petrol/electric hybrid technology, but they have since been joined by others, including Ford.
In Australia, we currently have a range of hybrid models to choose from. Toyota's Prius was first to market but there is now a wide range of hybrids available, including the Honda Jazz hybrid at a price of around $23,000, and some luxury variants from Lexus and European manufacturers. Even Ferrari, the traditional high performance sports car manufacturer, is developing a hybrid variant.
What is hybrid technology?
Hybrid technology uses a conventional petrol engine supplemented by an electric motor and battery pack. The idea is that you can have a smaller petrol engine, offering lower fuel consumption but, when you need the additional power or torque for acceleration or hill climbing, the electric motor kicks in. By using hybrid technology, manufacturers aim to get the best of both worlds, where you can have a larger car, and get lower fuel consumption without sacrificing anything in terms of performance.
Is the production of hybrid cars a reaction to rising petrol prices?
Initially, the production of hybrid cars was for environmental reasons rather than fuel costs. The first viable hybrid car - the Toyota Prius - was released in Australia in 2001, before the cost of petrol was the issue it is today. High fuel prices have certainly spurred manufacturers and buyers along.
Who are the leading hybrid manufacturers at the moment?
Toyota has an edge at the moment. Honda, now in its second generation of hybrids, is improving in leaps and bounds, but Toyota has expanded the technology into the luxury car sector via Lexus. When comparing the Prius to the current Civic Hybrid, Toyota's technology is a bit more refined. Both have a similar function but the Toyota, because it's had a head-start, has a more seamless transition between the petrol and the electric motors. It is also designed to provide more electric boost than the Honda through its larger battery pack.
Are hybrid vehicles a passing phase?
Most manufacturers are producing or preparing hybrid vehicles for the market so there will be many more around in future. Fuel-cell vehicles running on hydrogen are probably 15 - 20 years away.
Are hybrid-powered cars' lower fuel consumption better for the environment than petrol or diesel fuelled cars?
Hybrid cars have lower fuel consumption than a vehicle with conventional engine technology and are generally more efficient around town. For example, the Prius and the Civic Hybrid will shut down at idle while you're stopped - the petrol engine stops and uses the batteries to keep the air-conditioning etc. running. As you drive off, the petrol engine restarts once you hit 15 or 20 km/h. This provides good city cycle fuel consumption figures given the size of the car.
On the open road, the petrol engine is running more of the time. Driving on the freeway, the petrol engine shuts down on even slight downhill inclines and the vehicle runs on electric power because the load is very low. Uphill it's like being in any other car.
Do you see hybrid technology making significant improvements or will there be a shift away from electric-powered cars?
We won't see a shift away from hybrid cars; we'll probably just see more of them. And because they'll be more user-friendly, people will get used to them and there'll be a growing acceptance, especially when they don't look any different to conventional vehicles.
When driven, does a hybrid car feel different to a petrol-fuelled car?
Currently they do. Toyota starts and drives off in electric mode, then the petrol engine cuts in. The transition is virtually seamless - the 'Hybrid Synergy Drive' system that Toyota has developed is particularly good. You'll only feel the slightest vibration.
The Honda isn't as refined. It does the same thing, but it's very noticeable when the engine shuts down and restarts, to the point that in suburban driving you're aware of the engine's stopping and starting, which does begin to annoy you.
What are hybrid's disadvantages?
The biggest disadvantage is the higher purchase cost and uncertainty about the car's long term resale value. Currently, 3-4 year old Prius's are selling at around 50% of purchase price, which is not that much different to a conventional vehicle.
The other question for some people is, how long will the battery pack last? Toyota claims it has only replaced 4 Prius batteries in Australia, and two of those were in vehicles used in Cairns as taxis that had covered over 500,000 kilometres.