THE hybrid car is gaining popularity around the world as a viable alternative to your fossil fuel-burning car.

Let’s face it, sooner or later, we would have to accept that these hybrids and electrics would become commonplace. The fuel economy of a hybrid would put your petrol-powered sedan (even a Kancil) to shame. But what is a hybrid car, actually?

Basically a hybrid is just what is says on the tin. It’s a combination of an internal combustion engine and an electric motor. The hybrid is actually a compromise. It attempts to significantly increase the mileage and reduce the emissions of a petrol-powered car while overcoming the shortcomings of an electric car.

A normal car produces a lot of power and has good range but uses a lot of fuel and pollutes the environment. An electric car uses no fuel and produces no pollution but has a very limited range before it needs charging. It is also inconvenient to recharge as there are limited places where you are able to do it.

A hybrid car combines these two setups into one system that leverages both fossil-fuel power and electric power.

The electric motor on a hybrid car is very sophisticated. Advanced electronics allow it to act as an engine as well as a generator. It can draw energy from the batteries to accelerate the car but acting as a generator, it can also slow the car down and return energy to the batteries.

The batteries in a hybrid car are the energy storage device for the electric motor just like the petrol tank stores the fuel for the engine. But the electric motor on a hybrid car can put energy into the batteries as well as draw energy from them, quite unlike the petrol engine.

The way a hybrid car saves fuel is that the engine can be much smaller than the one in a conventional car and is, therefore, more efficient. In a small engine, efficiency is improved by using smaller and lighter parts, or by reducing the number of cylinders and by operating the engine closer to its maximum load.

The engine in the hybrid car is just about powerful enough for most situations but when it needs to get the car moving in a hurry, or climb a steep hill, it needs a little help. The electric motor and battery steps in to provide the necessary extra power.

The hybrid also utilises other tricks for high mileage figures. Besides a smaller, more efficient engine, the hybrid utilises regenerative braking. The electric motor that drives the hybrid can also slow the car when you press the brake pedal. In other words, the electric motor acts as a generator and charges the batteries while the car is slowing down.

Almost all hybrid cars utilise a stop/start feature, which switches off the engine when the vehicle is stopped at a red light. Almost all of them are very aerodynamic, utilising various features such as shrouded rear wheels and plastic covers under the car to improve aero efficiency.

Some have low-rolling resistance tyres that help save more fuel. A few utilise lightweight materials in their construction to lower weight and, therefore, improve fuel consumption.

If you do own one (congratulations) you can get the best mileage from a hybrid car by using the same kind of driving habits that give you better mileage in your petrol-engine car. Driving slower can increase your mileage significantly because air drag increases dramatically as speeds rise.

Maintaining a constant speed will also make the most efficient use of your fuel. Reduce the accelerating and slowing down by driving smoothly.

Additionally, since the electric motor in the hybrid acts like a generator and takes some of the energy out of the car while slowing it down, give the electric motor more time to slow the vehicle so it can recover more of the energy. If you stop quickly, the brakes on the car will do most of the work of slowing the car down, and that energy will be wasted.

The hybrid will never replace my Alfa GT Junior (wishful thinking) but it makes a strong case for itself as a commuter. See you next service (or battery replacement, whichever comes first).

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