Most car guys I know loathe hybrid-electric cars. You can probably blame the Prius — a hyper-efficient car that’s a bit dull to drive, like a four-cylinder Camry. V8 afficianados, even if they only drive minivans, tend to get all worked up about the Prius, making rash assumptions about the drivers.
Well, guess what? Hybrids are actually fine for performance, if set up that way, and have been for ages.
Not long after the Prius went mainstream, Lexus started setting up hybrid luxury cars. They had instant-on performance, with Corvette-like sprint times and decent mileage — in luxury barges.
The public was lukewarm to the idea of luxury hybrids, but when I drove them, I was impressed by the combination of performance and economy.
For gas mileage for a moment, and consider the electric motor. It has peak torque at zero RPM — when the wheel isn’t moving. You don’t have to wait for an engine to rev; the motor’s always ready to go. That means that you can use hybrids to kill lag — turbo lag, transmission lag, you name it.
In the old days, automakers used to oversize their engines and bias them to torque so they could better responsiveness — a quicker “push” after you tap the gas pedal. Today, they can use motors for that instant push, and then let the gasoline engine take it from there.
That means you can cruise in lower gear more often, have a smaller engine, rely on a turbocharger, even use a slower, gentler automatic, without being punished for it.
A moderately sized electric motor can virtually eliminate the lag you normally get with just about any engine. There’s immediate torque, no waiting for a downshift, turbo spool rpm climb. As an added bonus, the motor can kick in during transmission shifts for a slight acceleration edge and ever so slight increase in smooth shifting.
People used to like the old AMC straight-six for its low-end torque; some dislike modern mainstream engines because it can take them a while to gather steam. Toss in an electric motor, and suddenly you have the best of both worlds.
The Chrysler Pacifica was the first Fiat Chrysler hybrid since the ill-fated Durango/Aspen. When I drove the Pacifica, I found it considerably more responsive with the hybrid, despite the extra weight — and that’s a plug-in hybrid that can go a long time on motors alone, so it’s a lot heavier than the gasoline-only version.
The next Mopar to get a hybrid was the Jeep Wrangler, followed by the Ram 1500. They have one thing in common: both are heavy. The Wrangler’s hybrid is coupled to a two-liter four-cylinder turbo; with the electric motor, it’s more responsive than the 3.6 liter V6. The Ram’s hybrid is on both the V6 and V8 (you can still get a plain V8), and while I haven’t driven one yet — few have! — it should provide a Hemi-like experience.
Even if gasoline runs in your veins, be happy we’re getting mild-hybrid cars, because they give you extra performance, better city mileage, and a lot more instant response, at little cost.
(The writer of this article does not actually own a hybrid, preferring a stick-shift.)
The author of Dodge Viper, Jeep’s Go-Anywhere Vehicles, and The Rise and Reinvention of Chrysler Minivans, David Zatz has been writing about cars and trucks since the early 1990s; he also writes on organizational development and business at toolpack.info and covers Mac statistics software at macstats.org. His latest book, for kids, is Meet the Jeep.
David has been quoted by the New York Times, the Daily Telegraph, the Detroit News, and USA Today. You can reach him by using our contact form (preferred) or by calling (313) 766-2304.