What’s the hype with hybrid cars? A fast-track guide to going electric in SA
With fuel prices skyrocketing and the threat of climate change looming, alternative power solutions are looking all the more appealing. Here is why hybrid vehicles are a step in the right direction.
South Africans are looking for alternatives to petrol and diesel-fuelled cars more than ever before. In fact, according to AutoTrader’s 2021 Electric Vehicle Buyers Survey, search behaviour for electric vehicles has increased significantly — a 210% growth in searches for electric and hybrid cars.
Since electric cars are still expensive and not yet easy to use in South Africa, looking at hybrid options might be a better — and more affordable — solution.
Hybrids are still more expensive than cars with internal combustion engines, but they do tend to be cheaper than going fully electric. Similarly, they are more environmentally friendly than only using petrol or diesel but are not as green as only using a battery would be. Simply put, hybrids may offer drivers the best of both worlds while being an effective stopgap for environmental concerns.
George Mienie, CEO of AutoTraderSA and an electric vehicle enthusiast notes: “If we can’t bring the cost of the vehicle down in the short term, what is the middle step? The middle step is the hybrid”.
What is a hybrid, and how does it work?
Like a fully electric car, a hybrid vehicle has an electric motor powered by energy stored in batteries, but also has an internal combustion engine that is fueled by diesel or petrol.
1. Parallel hybrid
In a parallel hybrid, both the engine and the electric motor work in tandem to supply power to the vehicle. Both components are connected to the transmission and therefore both provide propulsion power.
“The hybrid electric motor provides the integration between the wheels and the petrol engine, and the two systems work together. Then, there’s a small battery that gets charged to help drive those wheels,” Mienie explains.
Because both systems are engaged simultaneously, parallel hybrids tend to have smaller batteries which can make the overall cost of the car lower, Mienie says.
Parallel hybrids are perhaps the most popular type of hybrids, with the iconic Toyota Prius being a famous example. Toyota launched the world’s first mass-produced hybrid passenger vehicle in 1997 with the tagline “Just in time for the 21st century”, and has continued to launch updated versions ever since.
Mienie explains that although the internal combustion engine continues to work all the time, the batteries and electric motor are helping to provide energy, making the fuel engine more efficient and resulting in a lot less energy loss.
Parallel hybrids also benefit from regenerative braking, which enables the vehicle’s kinetic energy to be converted back to electrical energy when the brake pedal is engaged which reintegrates energy back into the system.
Another example of a parallel hybrid on the South African market is the Honda FIT with e:HEV Hybrid Technology, and further up the price range is also the Porsche Cayenne Turbo GT. Toyota has continued from the success of the Prius with a variety of models that come in hybrid form as well, such as the Corolla, Corolla Cross and Rav4.
“I think a very good hybrid to buy right now is the Toyota Corolla Cross, that’s probably the best hybrid on the market at the best price point,” Mienie recommends.
2. Series or range extender hybrids
These hybrid vehicles are technically electric cars but have a generator to charge the electric battery that is powered by a small internal combustion engine. Even though petrol or diesel is not propelling the vehicle, fossil fuels are still being used.
The range extender is effectively “a generator in the boot”, Mienie explains. This means that the car is not going to cut out from running out of power in the middle of your commute, and for people who are wary of the range of electric cars, the range extender eliminates this range anxiety. However, the added weight of the generator does count against it in terms of efficiency.
These hybrids are not as popular in personal vehicles and are not easily available in South Africa. One example is the BMW i3 eDrive REx, which is no longer available on BMW’s website. Instead, the i3 is now offered as a fully electric vehicle.
3. Mild hybrid
While the range extenders seem to be phasing out, mild hybrids are becoming more popular.
A big advantage of these hybrids is that they provide an extra boost of electric power from a 48V electrical system when needed, improving acceleration.
They can also supplement the powering of other features in the car, besides the actual drive, such as the air conditioning compressor, power steering pump, engine oil pump and in starting the car. This results in a reduced engine load and thus increases fuel efficiency. Also, just as with parallel hybrids, mild hybrids utilise energy that would be lost from braking and accelerating and redeploy it.
Mild hybrids are relatively new to South Africa and are more common in high-end vehicles. These include the Maserati Ghibli GT Hybrid, the Jaguar E-Pace SUV, some Land Rovers and a few Volvo models such as the XC60.
4. Plug-in hybrid
Plug-in hybrids, as their name suggests, use electricity from an external outlet to charge a battery. When the battery is empty, the fuel engine will turn on. This makes the car more fuel efficient and more environmentally friendly.
Plug-in hybrids are, according to Mienie, where the middle ground between fuel and electric engines really is. “The reason I say that is because the plug-in hybrid is able to use the electric motor to drive the car by itself,” making it closer to an electric vehicle than the other types of hybrids.
“For instance, you can do short distances like school runs and city driving without ever touching the petrol engine, so the petrol engine really just sits there as a backup,” Mienie says, but the petrol engine will come into play for longer distances.
“If you’re going to go for a more expensive plug-in hybrid, I’d say the Volvo is one of the best on the market. If you’re doing the local commute to the shops or to school, you hardly have to touch that petrol motor,” he says.
For car enthusiasts, Ferrari also has a plug-in model, the SF90 Spider, which is a smouldering supercar with electric technology.
What it will cost you
Hybrids are undoubtedly creeping into the South African market, but there are some key considerations to make before heading to your local dealership.
“Cost is a big problem, it’s probably the thing that is holding us back the most,” Mienie says.
The prices are perhaps the biggest elephant in the room. Yes, not everyone is buying the Ferrari, but hybrids are more expensive than internal combustion engine cars, and that is something to keep in mind.
The middle-man effect of hybrid vehicles comes into play here, as Mienie explains: “Over time, people are going to want fully battery electric vehicles, but they’re not going to be able to afford them, so it’s always going to be this ambition.
“We’re going to see a lot of searches and a lot of interest in them, and there is going to be a segment of the market that is going to buy and drive the electric vehicles, which will then drive the technology and drive the cost down. And then those that can’t afford the electric vehicles right now are going to end up buying the hybrid.”
This means as more hybrids and electric cars saturate the market, the prices should start to go down. However, as it stands right now, anything other than a diesel or petrol engine is going to be initially quite pricey.
However, Mienie also encourages buyers to look at the long-term costs, as drivers must factor in the decreased spending on fuel as well. According to the US Department of Energy, the extra energy that an electric motor provides allows for a smaller internal combustion engine in the car.
“The battery can also power auxiliary loads and reduce engine idling when stopped. Together, these features result in better fuel economy without sacrificing performance.”
When it comes to hybrids and electric vehicles, range anxiety is often a concern — no one wants to lose power, whether it’s in the middle of nowhere or in the middle of traffic.
Even though electric vehicles are coming along in leaps and bounds to improve the range of the battery, range is not an issue with a hybrid car. This is due to the fuel engine backup as well as the improved efficiency of hybrids, Mienie explains.
Not only does using less fuel mean you have to fork out less every month at the petrol station, but there are also environmental benefits. Here again, the US Department of Energy notes that 12%–30% of the energy from the fuel is used to move a car with an internal combustion engine. In a hybrid car, the efficiency jumps to around 21%–40%. This results in fewer emissions all-round.
The Department of Energy also found that plug-in hybrids produce no exhaust emissions when they are in all-electric mode. While they do produce evaporative emissions, their direct emissions are typically lower than those of comparable conventional vehicles.
The environmental impact is not the only benefit. In fact, Mienie believes making the switch to a hybrid or electric car needs to be a holistic decision. “People say that this move to hybrid or electric vehicles is because we’re trying to save the environment. I am fully behind anything that tries to save our planet. But I don’t think that that should be the primary driver. I think it’s a natural downstream.
“It’s better technology, it lasts longer. There’s less noise pollution, there’s less chance of the car breaking down. It’s more efficient. So there’s a whole bunch of factors there.”
He adds that there is nothing wrong with buying second-hand.
“The nice thing about buying a parallel hybrid is the battery is so small that it’s inexpensive to replace, so there’s really nothing wrong with buying the older, second-hand hybrids. The only thing that’s going to go there is potentially the petrol engine, and then the batteries.”
“Electric motors are such simple technologies, they very rarely give up,” he says. DM/ML