Angie's LIST Guide to
Types of hybrids
Depending on the company, vehicle manufacturers employ a number of different hybrid drive train technologies in their hybrid vehicles.
Mild hybrids offer greater fuel savings than their internal-combustion counterparts, but not as great as full-fledged hybrids. A mild hybrid is so-called because it primarily relies on a gasoline powered engine for the majority of its driving, but also employs a small electric motor that’s used during braking, coasting and idling.
Examples of vehicles that employed mild-hybrid technology include some late-model General Motors trucks and SUVS, as well as some Honda cars.
At the moment, the hybrid vehicle type that most American drivers are familiar with is what's known as a power-split or parallel hybrid, especially so with the popularity of the Toyota Prius. A power-split hybrid relies on a larger electric motor than a mild hybrid, allowing it to achieve fuel-savings not only by bypassing gasoline-engine operation during coasting, braking and idling, but by also providing electric power upon acceleration or when more torque is needed such as when passing another vehicle.
Because it relies more electricity during normal driving, it can achieve higher fuel efficiency overall than mild hybrid systems. Hybrid vehicles such as the Toyota Prius can reach efficiencies as high as 42 miles per gallon.
Extended range hybrids and/or plug-in hybrids
An extended range hybrid vehicle takes reliance on an electric motor even further than conventional hybrids, using it as the primary source of power for the drive train and only using the gasoline engine as a supplementary or back-up power source. That is, the gasoline engine is not connected to the drive train but rather generates power to the electric motor to provide electricity if and when the battery is at or near depletion.
The most well-known extended range hybrid, the Chevy Volt, utilizes a battery recharged by a plug-in system to power the electric motor and a gasoline motor as a backup. Other popular models include the Toyota Prius Plug-in.
Plug-in electric vehicles
Although extended range hybrids achieve some of the highest fuel efficiency ratings, plug-in electric vehicles remove gasoline from the equation completely. The electric motor utilized by plug-in electric vehicles relies solely on a battery that’s recharged using an existing electrical system, such as a charger in the car owner’s garage.
While avoiding any fuel costs, plug-in electrical vehicles have a limited range per charge, which could make long-distance trips impossible. The most well-known plug-in electric is the Nissan Leaf.
Search Angie's List to find a reputable hybrid mechanic in your area. (Photo courtesy of John Hamilton)
To achieve great fuel efficiency, hybrid and electric vehicles rely on a slew of parts, systems and other automotive technology not found in conventional internal-combustion vehicles. While most of these systems are reliable and durable, any hybrid vehicle owner would be wise to know how these components play a crucial role in their vehicle’s operation, especially when these items require maintenance, repair or replacement.
Hybrid or plug-in batteries
The hybrid or plug-in’s battery is the source of electric power and the single-most crucial element to achieving greater fuel efficiency. Compared to the car batteries that conventional car owners are used to, hybrid batteries are massive, dense objects that are typically situated in the rear or middle of the vehicle. Most batteries are either nickel- or lithium ion-based, which are less environmentally damaging components when compared to a traditional vehicle’s lead-based battery.
Despite initial skepticism when hybrid vehicles first debuted, many hybrid vehicle batteries have been designed and proven to last more than 100,000 miles depending on the manufacturer.
A hybrid’s electric motor is another essential component to making the hybrid system work. Because there are few moving parts in an electric motor, they’re typically more durable than their internal-combustion counterparts.
Low-rolling resistance tires
Fuel efficiency in hybrids doesn’t come just from the power train set up, the vehicle itself is designed overall to use less fuel, including low-resistance aerodynamics and special low-rolling resistance tires. Because much of the energy consumed by vehicles is used to overcome rolling resistance (the vehicle’s natural tendency to slow and stop due to resistance created by contact between the tires and the road surface), employing low-rolling resistance tires greatly increases fuel economy.
Regenerative braking systems
Primarily used in conventional hybrid and extended range hybrid setups, regenerative braking recovers energy created by the brakes applying friction to slow or stop a vehicle. This energy would otherwise be wasted, but instead is used to recharge the hybrid vehicle’s battery.
Although not necessarily a component of the vehicle itself, plug-in hybrids and all-electric plug-in vehicles necessarily require a charging station. The most common installation site is in the car owner’s garage – which may require a dealership technician or a qualified electrician to install – but cities across the country are making efforts to make vehicle charging stations available on a widespread basis.
Hybrid maintenance can cost more than regular vehicles. (Photo courtesy of John Hamilton)
How to find a hybrid mechanic
Yes, hybrids are relatively new and employ many new technologies when compared to traditional cars powered only by gasoline – but that doesn’t necessarily mean finding a qualified hybrid mechanic should be difficult.
One of the biggest concerns many potential hybrid owners may consider is that repairs to hybrid-specific components may be prohibitively expensive. Although replacing a hybrid battery pack or an electric motor would no doubt be expensive, these components have proved to be extremely reliable and durable overall.
The next question a hybrid owner may ask is, “Is dealership service my only option?” No. Many independent or non-dealer service franchises offer service and repairs for hybrid vehicles. However, it’s essential you find a qualified technician or shop. Bodies such as the National Institute for Automotive Service Excellence (ASE) do not provide hybrid-specific credentials, but most routine maintenance and repair services can be accomplished by an ASE-certified mechanic.
For hybrid-specific repairs or services, most manufacturers recommend that hybrid owners visit dealership service bays, since make-specific hybrid repair training is not offered to independent service shops.
Hybrid vehicle owners can also expect to pay slightly higher costs for routine maintenance and repair. The upside of hybrid repairs: they're likely to require less overall traditional maintenance compared with fully gasoline-powered vehicles. Less reliance on the internal combustion engine not only means improved fuel economy, but also reduced wear and tear on the gasoline motor, mufflers and brakes.
If and when a hybrid owner pursues getting repairs through a non-dealer auto service provider, they should ask questions about the shop and technician’s qualifications: Are you familiar with hybrids? Do you have any hybrid training? Do you have anyone here that's familiar with these things?
Hybrid repair tips
Many hybrid components do not require advanced repair training. The big exceptions are components related to the electrical system, drive train and brakes.
The most expensive repair often associated with hybrids is replacing the battery, which can cost between $3,000 and $5,000. However, batteries are generally extremely durable and often last for the typical life of the vehicle.
Find a technician who specializes in hybrid repair before you need one: Right now the easiest way to find a hybrid-certified mechanic is in the hybrid dealership's service department. These mechanics at are required to undergo extensive hybrid training that some independent mechanics may not have gotten yet.
If you prefer to use a local repair shop, ask in advance if its mechanics have been certified. Many of these shops are sending their top mechanics back to school. Independent hybrid service centers are also popping up to accommodate the growing trend, and many are environmentally-friendly garages that use recycled materials and rely on solar energy.
Check licensing & certification: Most mechanics are ASE (Automotive Service Excellence) certified, whereas not all, but the majority of independent mechanics are not certified in hybrid repair. Hybrid dealership technicians, on the other hand, are required to complete the monthly and yearly certification courses and are up-to-speed on the latest innovations.
Never work on the electrical system yourself: Unless you are a hybrid-certified mechanic, leave the electrical and battery repairs to the professionals who are trained to work with those deadly, high-voltage components.
Don't be late with tire rotations: The electric engine creates more torque than a gasoline engine and can wear out tires faster.
Charge that battery: Regularly charge your battery if your hybrid has plug-in capability. Hybrids that don’t plug in use regenerative braking energy to self charge.
Stay up on routine maintenance: As with traditional fuel vehicles, staying current on your regular maintenance will extend the life and preserve the resale value of your hybrid.
Warranty work: Most hybrid warranties cover eight years or 100,000 miles. Determine if your warranty requires you to use a specific repair center. If you use another source, keep all receipts in case your warranty coverage is questioned.