Are hybrid cars slower than regular cars?

Do hybrid cars sacrifice speed for better fuel-efficiency?
Do hybrid cars sacrifice speed for better fuel-efficiency?
Š Chapa-Malacara

Part of America's love affair with cars is the desire for speed. Sure, we're attached to automobiles for several other reasons -- they get us comfortably from one point to the next, and we're even willing to sit through grueling traffic jams in them just to get to work or to the grocery store. But the rumble of the engine, the whine of the gears shifting upwards and the wind flowing through an open window is a common, iconic image. It's probably no coincidence that lots of American road movies include montages that attempt to convey that sort of feeling.

The rising popularity of hybrid cars within the auto industry, however, is changing that familiar perception. For one, most fuel-efficient vehicles don't necessarily rumble. In fact, most employ a function that allows the gasoline engine to stop running while sitting in traffic, coasting or even when the car is driving at lower speeds. Instead, a hybrid vehicle uses a quieter electric motor to conserve fuel and produce fewer emissions.


But despite being known for having good fuel efficiency and promoting eco-friendly driving, some have criticized hybrid vehicles for a variety of reasons. Some have questioned, for instance, the reliability of hybrid battery packs, claiming that they tend to be faulty and that they're expensive to replace. This is largely untrue, and nearly every car company producing a hybrid vehicle guarantees their battery pack for the life of the car.

Other critics, at least those that have grown accustomed to faster speeds associated with modern gasoline-powered cars, have noted that hybrid cars are typically slower than regular automobiles. The claim is that by focusing on fuel-efficiency and lower emissions, hybrid cars are sacrificing higher speeds and more power, slowing down their performance. Because this doesn't gel with the typical image of the fast American car, some drivers are a little turned off by this.

So, are hybrid cars really slower than regular cars? Why is this? And is that really the point for someone concerned about green driving?


Hybrid Engine Performance

A Lexus Hybrid Engine on display at the 36th Annual South Florida International Auto Show in 2006. While hybrids can reach relatively high speeds, it's good acceleration that some models lack.
While hybrids can reach relatively high speeds, it's good acceleration that some models lack.
Victor Malafronte/Getty Images

When most people buy a hybrid car, they usually do so with the understanding that there's going to be some kind of compromise between power and eco-friendly driving. The reason hybrid vehicles have become such a buzz topic and a go-to model for the auto industry recently is because of that compromise. As concerns increase over global warming, caused in part by carbon emissions resulting from vehicle fuel consumption, the power provided by a gasoline engine coupled with the fuel-saving qualities of an electric motor seem like the best possible combination.

But are fuel-efficient vehicles significantly slower than regular cars? To see if hybrid cars crawl on the road rather than zip along, we have to look into hybrid engine performance. Generally speaking, the engine in a hybrid car is almost always smaller than the engine in a comparable non-hybrid car. Smaller engines usually equal less horsepower and less torque. To get good fuel efficiency, hybrids operate from a standing start using only the electric motor, which typically provides much less horsepower and torque than a gasoline-powered engine. These two systems work together, however, to ensure hybrids can save fuel in the city and drive at faster speeds on the highway or even climb steep hills.


In short, hybrid cars won't be maxing out at 45 miles per hour (72 kilometers per hour) on the highway, endangering -- or at the very least, angering -- other drivers on the road, but they won't go quite as fast as most regular cars, either. While many all-electric vehicles have significantly lower top speeds and some are even a little bit unstable on the highway, hybrid cars get enough power from the gasoline engine to go as fast as 100 miles per hour (161 kilometers per hour). The real matter for hybrids is in acceleration. Since the smaller electric motors that most automakers use don't produce much horsepower, a relatively fast hybrid car can go from zero to 60 miles per hour (97 kilometers per hour) in about six seconds, while a more typical hybrid car's zero to 60 time hovers around the 10 second mark. For some people, that's a little too slow.

How are the carmakers responding? Well, some are developing faster hybrid cars with larger, V-6 engines and more powerful electric motors. Hybrid technology developer Frazer-Nash Research and Italian design firm Italdesign Giugiaro, for instance, worked together to build the Namir, a concept plug-in hybrid that can go from zero to 62 miles per hour (100 kilometers per hour) in 3.5 seconds and has a top speed of 187 miles per hour (301 kilometers per hour). The Namir's range is also 1,200 miles (1,931 kilometers), so anyone with the need for speed and an itch for green driving should look toward Italy.

For more information about hybrid cars and other related topics, follow the links the next page.


Lots More Information

Related HowStuffWorks Articles

  • Aziz, Nick. "Frazer-Nash Namir by Giugiaro: World's fastest plug-in hybrid." March 3, 2009. (April 27, 2009)
  • Siler, Wes. "2010 Mercedes ML450 Hybrid: V8 Power With V6 Fuel Economy." April 8, 2009. (April 27, 2009)
  • Wald, Matthew L. "Hybrid Cars Burning Gas in the Drive for Power." The New York Times. July 17, 2005. (April 27, 2009)