How can I save money on gas with a hybrid car like the Toyota Prius?

Summary: Hybrid cars like the Toyota Prius and Lexus Rx400h can save you money on gasoline and can help you preserve the environment for your children.

A few years back when you were looking for a new car you were probably lusting after one of the fat new SUVs on the market. Maybe you liked the height. Maybe it was the 4-wheel drive that sold you. Or perhaps you had a family and the obligatory mini van just wasn’t sexy enough. Whatever your reasons, it certainly wasn’t the mileage. But when you bought your Land Cruiser or Explorer gas prices didn’t hover around $2.15 per gallon. Now when it costs upward of $70 every time you fill up, you start to question just how much you really need this big honkin’ vehicle just to go food shopping and tote the kids to and from soccer practice. Maybe it’s time to rethink your family’s transportation.

Maybe it’s time to look at hybrids.

The Toyota Prius, the most popular hybrid on the market today, gets 60 miles per gallon city and 55 highway. Sounds pretty good, doesn’t it? But how do hybrids work exactly? What makes them so fuel efficient?

Hybrids draw power from more than one source. In the case of automobiles the power sources are gasoline and electricity. However, mining trucks are most often deisel-electric hybrids as are busses in some major cities and some submarines. Does this mean you have to plug in your hybrid every night? Hardly.

Today’s hybrids are light years away from the electric cars that never really caught on in the ‘70s and ‘80s. For one, you never have to recharge the battery as the hybrid’s energy produced by it’s internal combustion engine is stored in the Ni-MH battery. The Prius, what is known as a series hybrid, uses the electric motor to power the car under normal city driving conditions and helps propel the car at higher speeds. Unlike the Prius, which can – and at times does – run on its electric motor alone – the Honda Insight, known as a parallel hybrid, must have the internal combustion engine engaged in order for the car to be running, however the power assist from the electric motor fueled by the battery gives the Insight an enviable 66 miles per gallon highway.

The major components of a hybrid are similar to any automobile: internal combustion engine, fuel tank, battery, transmission. However, in addition to these there’s also a generator, an electric motor, and an additional battery pack not regularly found in gas fueled cars.

But what about performance? One of the reasons people have come to love their beefy SUVs is because they can conquer any hill with ease and, let’s face it, these little hybrids look like they could conquer your lawn with ease. But where’s the low-end torque? Enter the Honda Accord Hybrid. With 6-cylinders, this little beast can get you where you’re going the same way it’s little brother, the Insight, did: by using the electric motor to beef up the internal combustion engine. Couple the added muscle with a lower fuel bill and you’re looking pretty smart. But if you’re not willing to give up the height, clearance, and wheel base of your SUV, then look no further.

This year alone we’ll see the Toyota Highlander and the luxurious Lexus RX 400h, the latter’s pre sale list topping 9,000 – so many that they allowed prospective owners to track the “birth” of their new hybrid. The Chevy Tahoe hybrid and the GMC Yukon are due out in 2006.

But hybrids aren’t limited to cars and SUVs. Out this year are the Chevy Silverado 1500 and the GMC Sierra Hybrid pick ups. Marketed at contractors, both get twice the mileage of their gas guzzling cousins, are competitively priced, come with extended cabs, a 5.3 liter V8 engine, optional 4-wheel drive, and can haul anything a builder needs. The Dodge Ram pick up is due out later this year.

Another totally cool thing about hybrids – and this is especially true of the series hybrids – they are exceptionally quiet. Because when the internal combustion engine is off and the electric engine is engaged, the car is technically “on” rather than “started” and is silent – all you hear is road noise.

Not quite sold yet? Take one for a test drive. Whether you opt to buy one or not you’ll probably be pleasantly surprised at what a hybrid can do.

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