Car Power Plants Reviewed: Electric, Hybrid, Gasoline and Others

Have you thought about buying an all-electric vehicle, or hybrid with the costs of gasoline being so high. Maybe you are ecologically minded, and think electric power is better for the environment. Before you run out and buy an alternative fuel car, I thought it would be good to cover the advantages and disadvantages of the various types of engine systems that power cars.

Within the next 10 – 20 years it is quite possible that all-electric plug-in vehicles will be the majority of cars being purchased, yet today they represent less than 5% of new-car buys. Hybrids are really popular today, and plug-in hybrids are gaining in popularity, but if you are confused by all of the options read on.

  • Traditional gasoline powered, internal combustion engine. Within the last 30 years this reliable power has gotten very efficient, light weight and low polluting. The improvement in engine technologies have been aided with lower weight chassis to expand the miles per gallon of all trucks, cars and SUV. Contrary to conventional wisdom, and media criticism, gasoline engine vehicles use a very efficient power plant.  I’ve read articles about the science of them, and they convert power from fuel very efficiently considering all the things they do. In addition they are low in maintenance, accelerate quickly and can go nearly everywhere. Their biggest advantage over any all-electric vehicle is that they can go for hundreds of miles before needing a fill up. The worst SUV may still get less than 15 miles per gallon, but the best subcompact may obtain MPG ratings in the high 40’s. The world wide supply of oil seems to be adequate to meet the demand for the balance of this century, however the ecological and political issues surrounding its use, exploration, extraction and its increasing costs make gasoline and diesel power problematic for some.
  • Diesel powered engines also have come a long way in the last dozen years. They don’t pollute nearly as much as they used to, accelerate faster than the diesel powered cars of the 70’s and 80’s. They have tons of torque, which is very helpful if towing or trucks carrying a lot of weight.  Diesel powered cars get better gas mileage than their gasoline brethren, however since most diesel powered cars cost more than equivalent gasoline models and the price at the pump of diesel costs about fifty cents more per gallon, it may take 5 years or more to recoup the additional cost. Some maintenance is less for diesel cars, but it seems diesel is best for those putting very high mileage on their cars every year, and keeping them for a very long time, such as 10 years or more.
  • Natural Gas powered vehicles are on the road today, but mainly Compressed Natural Gas (CNG) or Liquefied Natural Gas (LNG) power fleets of city vehicles. Natural gas costs less than gasoline, doesn’t get as good miles per gallon, however unlike diesel, the increased cost of the vehicle and the less MPG is more quickly offset by the reduced price of natural gas.  There are not many CNG or LNG fueling stations in the U.S. to make this a viable alternative for most people. The supply of gas in the U.S. seems to be strong, however the controversy over fracking puts gas in question whether it will be the fuel answer in the coming years.
  • Hybrid powered cars and SUV’s are a blend of internal combustion and electric engines, using sophisticated systems for the efficient balance between both plants, and some extract energy from braking. In my mind there are two types of hybrids; one I call dedicated hybrids, for these the entire vehicle design and construction was built to highlight the advantages of these mated technologies, like the Toyota Prius or Ford C-Max. The second type takes an existing platform, such as a Toyota Camry or Ford Escape and swaps in the hybrid components- I call these modified hybrids.  Clearly the price of  modified hybrids can be several thousands of dollars more than the non-modified version of the same model, again like diesel, the increases costs of modified takes many years to recoup, making them a bad deal in my opinion.  The dedicated hybrids get a lot better gas mileage than the modified, because they were designed around that technology from the ground up. Dedicated hybrids still cost more when you compare cars of similar internal space and trunk size, such as if someone were considering a Toyota Corolla verses a Prius, but if someone usually purchases a car in the price range of a Prius, they are attracted by great gas mileage and well thought out design that makes their smaller space seem roomier and with hatch back’s great use of space. Prius owners love them. The other draw backs besides space and price, are the price of battery replacements if owned for a very long time. I am not a fan of modified hybrids, but like the dedicated hybrids a lot, especially if you can a great deal on one.
  • All Electric Plug-In vehicles are wonderful because you never have to buy gasoline. If you have a convetional car getting 25 miles per gallon, you can easily spend $200 or more per month on fuel, depending on the length of your commute.  The cost to recharge plug-ins are about $3, so if you drive it 28 days per month, and have to give it a full charge, your electric bill will go up by $84, maybe more if you recharge it twice a day, maybe less if you recharge it every other day, or only need partial charges. Individual buyers will need to calculate the costs for themselves. The drawbacks are they all run $30,000 – $40,000 or more for most all electrics, more than double that for a Fisker or Tesla. The Federal government provides $2,500 – $7,500 in tax credits, which helps to make them more affordable. Plug-ins are very small- not good for those wanting more space or safety of large cars. The biggest draw-back of plug-ins is their range. Most can only go 60 to 100 miles per charge, so unless there is a charging station where you are going, plug-ins are best for shorter commutes and around town driving, making them a good thing to consider if you have a second vehicle used for longer trips.  Plug-ins may not be good for apartment dwellers and condo owners who are not able to find an easy place to recharge them. One last thought- within the last several years we have had several multi-day power outages. During such times, my local coffee shop didn’t mind my camping out there to recharge my phone and laptop, but I think they would draw the line with an extension cord out to the curb. Not having a reliable gasoline powered car available could be problematic for  some.
  • Hybrid Plug-ins combine the long range and efficient capabilities of dedicated hybrids to achieve all electric use for low cost shorter trips, yet gasoline power for acceleration and longer trips. The Chevy Volt, Toyota Prius Plug-In, and Ford C-Max Energi provide these types of power plants. These cars don’t have quite have the range in all electric mode as the all electric plug-ins, since they have more weight to carry with the gasoline engine and heavy fuel on board. Expect a range in the neighborhood of 11 to 50 miles depending upon the model, for electric-only mode. However when using the combination of gas and electric, the range will be as far as many cars with just gasoline engines, and some much farther. Hybrid plug-ins seem to offer the best of both worlds, however the costs can be high for these models even after tax credits, usually making the increased cost of the purchase of the vehicle in excess of the energy saved.

Conclusion: If someone is considering the purchase of a car, I think it would be best to decide what they want in a car, such as performance, space, safety, purchase price and reliability first. Once they have arrived at that, then consider what cars are available in that price range.  If one the non gasoline-only cars fall into consideration, then calculate the fuel savings and overall features for what you are looking for- always doing the math to decide if the increased costs of the hybrid will be offset by the fuel savings. In other words don’t just look for efficiency and forget safety and price, in the end you might not be happy with the performance.