Here's how these tech-heavy vehicles work
Toyota Prius Plug-In
Toyota Prius Solar Panels
Smart Fortwo Electric Drive
Chevrolet Spark Electric
Toyota Camry Hybrid
Hyundai Sonata Hybrid
Kia Optima Hybrid
Volkswagen Jetta Turbocharged Hybrid
Honda FCX Clarity
Tesla Model S
Audi Q5 Hybrid
Porsche Panamera S E-Hybrid
GM Two-Mode Hybrid Trucks
- Toyota Prius
- Toyota Prius Plug-In
- Toyota Prius...
- Chevrolet Volt
- Cadillac ELR
- Nissan Leaf
- Mitsubishi i-MiEV
- Ford C-Max
- Smart Fortwo...
- Chevrolet Spark...
- BMW i3
- BMW i8
- Toyota Camry Hybrid
- Hyundai Sonata...
- Kia Optima Hybrid
- Volkswagen Jetta...
- Honda Insight
- Honda CR-Z
- Honda FCX Clarity
- Tesla Model S
- Fisker Karma
- Audi Q5 Hybrid
- Lexus RX450h
- Porsche Panamera...
- Diesel Engines
- GM Two-Mode...
- GM eAssist
- Mazda SkyActiv
At one time, it was simple: cars took gasoline. Today, with fuel efficiency and emissions being major concerns, you’ll find a wide variety of hybrid, electric, and extended-range models. Read on to see exactly how each one works.
The original mass-produced hybrid, the Prius (including the Prius V and Prius C) combines a gasoline engine with an electric motor. Depending on conditions, it can run solely on electricity, on gasoline, or on a combination of the two. This happens automatically, although you can hit a button that will keep it on electricity at low speeds if you keep a light foot. The Prius recharges its battery automatically, using regenerative braking and the gasoline engine. You don’t plug it into the wall.
The Prius Plug-In does get plugged into the wall. After you’ve done that, it will run for up to 25 kilometres on that stored electricity. When that runs out, the car reverts to the same gasoline/battery system that the regular Prius hybrid uses. However, you have to plug it back in to get that 25-kilometre battery-only mode again.
One of the options on the Toyota Prius is a set of solar panels in the roof. However, they don’t charge the battery that runs the car. Instead, they run a small ventilation fan that cools the interior in hot weather while the car is parked. This reduces the load on the air conditioning system, improving the car’s efficiency.
The Volt is an extended-range electric car. After you plug it into the wall to charge the battery, it will go for approximately 60 kilometres on electricity. When that runs out, it uses a small gasoline engine that automatically starts up and works like a generator, producing electricity to power the electric motor. If you can’t plug it in, the Volt will run as long as it has gasoline in its tank.
The upcoming Cadillac ELR uses the same basic driveline as the Chevrolet Volt. Like the Volt, you plug it into the wall, and it runs on that stored electricity. When that runs out, the ELR’s gasoline engine fires up and feeds more electricity to the motor.
The Leaf is an entirely electric car. After it’s been fully charged by plugging it into an outlet, it will travel up to 160 kilometres on electricity alone (the actual range you get depends on several factors). Once the stored charge runs out, the car has to be recharged before you can drive it again.
Like the Leaf, the i-MiEV is completely electric. After it’s plugged into the wall, it will travel up to 155 kilometres on its battery alone. As with all electric-only cars, if the battery runs down, you’re walking home. (It’s pronounced Eye-Meeve, by the way.)
There are two versions of this hatchback model. The C-Max Hybrid is a regular hybrid that combines a gasoline engine with an electric motor, and it doesn’t plug in. The battery recharges through regenerative braking and the gasoline engine. The C-Max Energi, meanwhile, is a plug-in hybrid. When it’s charged from a wall outlet, it will travel up to 43 kilometres on its battery alone. When the charge runs out, it reverts to conventional hybrid operation.
This is a purely electric car. Plug it in, and it can run for up to 138 kilometres on electricity alone. When the battery runs down, the car has to be charged again before you can drive it.
The electric Spark, currently available only as a commercial fleet vehicle, is a purely electric car. It plugs into a wall outlet, and when its battery charge runs down, it has to be recharged again.
The upcoming BMW i3 will come in two variants. It will be available as a purely electric car, expected to have a range of about 130 to 160 kilometres on a charge. It can also be optioned as an extended-range model. This one also plugs into the wall, but when that charge runs out, a small gasoline engine automatically starts up and acts as a generator to make more electricity. With a full tank of gas, it will have twice the range of the battery-only model.
The upcoming BMW i8 sports car is a plug-in hybrid. Most hybrids combine their gasoline engines and electric motors to power the front wheels. The i8 has an electric motor powering the front wheels, and a gasoline engine powering the rear wheels. When the battery is charged after plugging it into the wall, the i8 can run on electricity alone when the driver pushes a button on the dash. In sportier mode, the i8 works as a hybrid, combining gas and electric, and recharging its battery through regenerative braking.
The Camry Hybrid is a conventional hybrid, combining a gasoline engine and electric motor. It doesn’t plug into a wall outlet. It will run on electricity, gasoline, or a combination of the two, depending on conditions, and automatically switches between them. It recharges its battery with regenerative braking and the gasoline engine.
The Sonata Hybrid is a conventional hybrid. It doesn’t plug into the wall, but recharges its battery itself. It automatically switches between electricity, gasoline, or a combination, depending on driving conditions.
The Optima is a conventional hybrid that doesn’t plug into the wall. It charges its battery itself, and automatically switches between electricity, gasoline, or a combination of the two.
This is a conventional hybrid—you don’t plug it into a wall—but it’s a little unusual in that its gasoline engine is also turbocharged, which provides extra power out of its 1.4-litre engine when required. It recharges its battery as you’re driving, and automatically switches between electricity, gasoline, or a combination of the two as required.
The Insight’s drivetrain is sometimes called a “mild” hybrid. Honda calls the system an Integrated Motor Assist, or IMA, and it uses an electric motor that assists the gasoline engine. The idea behind these assist systems is that the car can use a smaller engine, which in turn improves efficiency. The Insight doesn’t plug in. Unlike hybrids like the Prius, the Insight can’t take you through city traffic on its battery alone.
The CR-Z uses the similar Integrated Motor Assist (IMA) system as the Insight, but it’s tweaked for sportier performance. It doesn’t plug in, and recharges its battery itself while driving.
The FCX Clarity is a fuel cell vehicle, which is essentially an electric car that uses hydrogen. The fuel cell combines the hydrogen—which has to be pumped into the vehicle and stored in a tank—with oxygen from the outside air, and uses this to generate electricity to run the car’s electric motor. It also contains a lithium-ion battery that recharges via regenerative braking, also providing power for the motor. The fuel cell’s “exhaust” is water vapour. The FCX Clarity is only available for lease in specific areas, primarily in Southern California.
The Tesla is a purely electric vehicle that plugs into a wall. Depending on the size of the battery ordered, the Model S can go up to 425 kilometres on a charge. When the battery runs down, it has to be recharged before the car can be driven again.
The Karma, made by the financially-doomed California automaker Fisker, is an extended-range vehicle. It plugs into an outlet and runs on its battery until the charge runs out, and then automatically switches to a gasoline engine that acts as a generator, making more electricity for the car’s two electric motors. A solar panel in the roof provides some power for the car’s accessory systems.
The Q5 Hybrid is a conventional system, using a turbocharged gasoline engine with electric motor. It doesn’t plug in. Depending on driving conditions, it runs on its battery, the gasoline engine, or a combination of both, switching between them automatically.
The RX400h is a conventional hybrid that doesn’t plug into a wall. It uses a gasoline engine with electric motor, and can run on its battery, on gasoline, or using a combination of the two. It also has an electric motor that powers the rear wheels when all-wheel drive is required.
The Panamera Hybrid was a conventional hybrid, using a supercharged gasoline engine with electric motor and nickel-metal hydride battery. It doesn’t get plugged into the wall, and operates on electricity, gasoline, or a combination of the two. The new Panamera S E-Hybrid is a plug-in hybrid with lithium-ion battery. Plugging it in improves its performance and the range of its electric-only ability, and reduces fuel consumption. If it isn’t plugged in, it still operates as a conventional hybrid, recharging its own battery.
Diesel engines work similarly to gasoline engines, but instead of using a spark plug to ignite the fuel, they use the heat generated when the pistons compress the air in the cylinders. Diesels are more fuel-efficient than comparable gasoline engines, but they also tend to be more expensive, and their exhaust requires treatment to meet emissions standards. Popular for cars in Europe, they’re gradually showing up in more models in North America. Gas and diesel are not interchangeable, and you have to use the correct fuel for each engine.
“Flex-fuel” engines can accept E85, a fuel that’s 15 per cent gasoline and 85 per cent plant-based ethanol. A flex-fuel engine has special seals to deal with E85’s corrosive properties, and higher-volume injectors and fuel pump, since E85 doesn’t have as much energy as gasoline and the vehicle needs more of it. A flexible-fuel engine can burn regular gasoline, E85, or a combination of the two. If a vehicle isn’t flex-fuel, don’t put E85 in it.
Two-mode hybrids use a gasoline engine and an electrically variable transmission (EVT) with storage battery. The EVT includes two electric motors, and depending on driving conditions, the truck can run on electricity, gasoline, or a combination of the two at lower speeds and when lightly loaded. At higher speeds, or if the truck has a heavy load, the gasoline engine always runs, while the electric motors add assist when necessary. The truck recharges its battery and doesn’t plug into an outlet.
These systems go by a variety of proprietary names, including Multi-Displacement System or MDS (Chrysler), Active Fuel Management (GM), and Variable Cylinder Management, or VCM (Honda). When full power isn’t needed, such as when you’re cruising at a set speed, the system deactivates some of the cylinders to improve fuel efficiency. The pistons still move in the cylinders, since they’re attached to the crankshaft, but they don’t receive any fuel. The transition is seamless and most drivers can’t feel it.
Originally found only on hybrids, start-stop is now showing up on some regular models. When you come to a stop, such as when idling at a light, the engine shuts off, saving fuel and eliminating emissions while you’re waiting. Other functions still work, including the climate control, stereo, and lights. The engine restarts when you take your foot off the brake, or on a stick shift, put it in gear. On a hybrid, the electric motor restarts the engine, while conventional cars have special heavy-duty starters.
Available on models such as the Buick LaCrosse, the eAssist system is also known as light electrification. It uses an electric motor-generator and lithium-ion battery to provide electric assist to the four-cylinder gasoline engine when extra power is needed. It doesn’t get plugged in, and it can’t run on the battery alone.
SkyActiv is Mazda’s name for fuel-saving technologies, but it doesn’t indicate a hybrid or electric car. Instead, it includes fuel-efficient engines and transmissions, and lightweight body construction, since the heavier a vehicle is, the more fuel it takes to move it around.