Gasoline prices are rising, so it’s a good thing that so many vehicles are covertly hybrids

For automakers, that’s often part of the point.

Electric vehicle sales continue to grow each year, and more and more companies are announcing plans to phase out gasoline engines altogether. But high fuel costs and the relatively high prices of all-electric cars means that hybrids can still help drivers save money. And customers buy hybrids in large numbers, even if they don’t always realize they’re buying one.

The Toyota Prius sent car buyers to dealerships in the early 2000s when gas prices were skyrocketing and a recession made them seek fuel-efficient alternatives. But those Prius waiting lists eased over the years as more hybrids hit the market. Toyota Prius sales peaked in the United States in 2012 with over 230,000 units sold. In 2019, that number shrank to just over 69,000.

At the same time, however, hybrid technology has prevailed. And while all-electric vehicles have some cultural merit, automakers are often wary of challenging their gasoline-electric hybrids. While many hybrids are proudly billed as such — the Hyundai Tucson Hybrid and Ford Escape Hybrid, for example — others, often vehicles with mild-hybrid systems, only include this information in technical documents or the owner’s manual.

The Toyota Tundra iForce Max hybrid system offers V8 power from a 6-cylinder engine.

According to data from automotive website Edmunds.com, hybrid vehicle market share has more than doubled since 2017, growing from 2.0% of the market to 5.1% of the market. But that doesn’t capture all hybrid vehicles, said Edmunds.com analyst Ivan Drury. It’s impossible to know exactly how many hybrid trucks, cars and SUVs are being sold because industry statistics only count them as hybrids if the manufacturer calls them hybrids themselves or gives them a separate model name, Drury said. Car manufacturers often mention hybrid systems just as little as other engine or transmission functions. That means a Toyota Rav4 Hybrid might count, but a Toyota Tundra i-Force Max pickup, which is also a hybrid, might not.

The differences in the marketing of hybrid vehicles – sometimes with a chrome “hybrid” badge on the back and sometimes with barely a mention – may be due to how the technology is perceived by different types of customers.

“There might be a little stigma attached to the word ‘hybrid,'” said Bill Visnic, editorial director of the Society of Automotive Engineers.

Some car buyers worry that hybrid could mean “small” performance, he said.

When people think of hybrids, they usually think of the icon of this type, the Toyota Prius. The Prius and similar hybrids have batteries that store energy while the car is driving. That electricity is then used to power an electric motor, which can power the wheels at low speeds – or even high speeds if the accelerator pedal isn’t pressed hard – and provide extra boost when accelerating. But modern hybrids have moved beyond the technology of the Prius.

From “mild” to “full” hybrids

Many modern cars have so-called “mild hybrid” systems. These vehicles have smaller, lighter batteries and a less powerful electric motor than so-called full hybrids. As a rule, the electric motor cannot drive the car on its own, but it can provide support when starting from a standing position. The gas engine still does most of the work, but the electric motor provides an extra boost that makes the gas engine’s job easier. Because of its smaller batteries, mild hybrid technology is easier to fit into a vehicle without taking up cargo or passenger space for battery packs. They also don’t add as much expense to the vehicle, making them easier to sell to buyers who aren’t entirely focused on fuel economy.

Mild hybrid systems can be found in surprising places, like on some full-size Jeep Wrangler and Ram 1500 pickup trucks. The optional mild hybrid eTorque system in the Ram 1500 allows the truck’s petrol engine to be shut off when the truck is stationary, allowing the truck to run without a battery for up to approximately 10 minutes while stationary. (However, not every vehicle that shuts off the engine when stationary is necessarily a mild hybrid.) When the driver releases the brake pedal, an electric motor can propel the truck forward for less than half a second while the gasoline engine kicks in again.

The mild-hybrid system adds up to two additional miles per gallon, according to the manufacturer, primarily in city driving.

Other cars have Prius-style full hybrid systems but just don’t market them that way. The Toyota Tundra i-Force Max, for example, is a full hybrid pickup, but you’d never know it by looking at it. It can turn off its engine and sometimes drive using only its electric motor. But even on the instrument cluster there is no indication that the truck has a hybrid system. There is a meter that shows the electric motor’s power, but it’s simply labeled “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 pulling and hauling power without impacting fuel economy. The Tundra’s hybrid system is tuned for maximum performance rather than primarily fuel economy. In the Tundra range, the i-Force Max replaces the potentially thirstier V8 engine option for customers wanting maximum towing and hauling capabilities. With its emphasis on performance, the hybrid Tundra is less fuel efficient than Ford’s hybrid F-150, but offers slightly more power and torque.

Some vehicles, like the new Audi A3 compact sedan, fall somewhere between mild and full hybrids. It’s technically a mild hybrid, but it’s not that mild. As with a full hybrid, an electric motor can propel the relatively small and light A3, Audi’s entry-level model, at low speeds or when coasting on flat roads or downhill. Similar technology was available for larger Audi models in Europe, said Anthony Garbis, Audi of America’s head of product planning, but felt US customers might not appreciate it in these larger, more luxurious cars.

“We’ve always found it a bit odd to have your A8 [full-size luxury sedan] Drive down the autobahn,” he said. “So with the A3, it seemed like the right audience, price and technology to introduce the sailing feature.”

And with Audi moving toward an all-electric offering in just over a decade, there’s less of a focus on that type of technology now, he said. Audi is now looking at when its cars will be able to do without a petrol engine.

How to find a secret hybrid

If you’re curious as to whether a car you’re considering buying has mild hybrid technology, a visit to the automaker’s website will usually tell you so. Or you can just google or go straight to online resources like Consumer Reports (subscription required), KBB.com, Edmunds.com or, if you really want to dive into the details, CarandDriver.com.
If you’re just looking for the best fuel economy, regardless of the technology, the Environmental Protection Agency’s fueleconomy.gov is always the best place to start.

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