Pros: Excellent fuel economy, especially in the city; very low emissions; "plug-in" hybrid vehicles provide a fully electric drive

Cons: Questionable value; strange brake-pedal feel

Summary: If you're shopping for a car and you see the term "hybrid" or "hybrid vehicle," it refers to a vehicle that pairs a conventional gasoline engine with an electric motor that's connected to a battery pack.

Hybrids are known for their extremely high fuel economy. The most popular hybrid vehicle, Toyota's Prius hatchback, gets about 50 miles per gallon both on the highway and in the city -- mileage unheard of among nonhybrids.

In simplest terms, hybrids are fuel-sippers because they make that electric motor do as much of the work as possible. In "dual-mode" hybrids such as the Prius, the gasoline engine actually shuts off when it's not needed -- when you're coasting to a stop, for example. This is the most common hybrid, though Honda uses a different approach that keeps the gas engine online, causing fuel economy to suffer slightly.

If you're wondering how the electric motor's battery pack stays charged, the secret is regenerative technology that feeds the batteries with captured energy from braking and cruising. In other words, hybrids are perpetually recharging themselves while you're driving. It's pretty cool stuff, though you can sometimes feel the brake pedal trying to serve two masters -- your foot and the battery pack -- which is a little disconcerting.

Then there are "plug-in" hybrids such as the Chevrolet Volt, which take it one step further by allowing full electric operation over a limited range (in the Volt's case, roughly 30 to 40 miles). As long as the battery pack is sufficiently charged, a plug-in hybrid can get around without the gas engine at all, whether you're running errands or cruising on the highway.

What it means to you: With the emphasis on fuel economy these days, we'll likely see more hybrid vehicles on the road with each passing year. The main downside is that hybrids cost more than their conventional counterparts, so they're hard to recommend on value alone. But if you like being less dependent on gas, there's never been a better time to go hybrid. From affordable options such as the pint-sized Toyota Prius c to exercises in extravagance such as the Porsche Panamera Hybrid, there's something for just about every new car shopper's budget.

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Josh Sadlier is an automotive journalist based in Los Angeles and has contributed to such publications as Edmunds.com and DriverSide.com. He holds arguably the most unexpected degree in his profession: a master's in Theological Studies.

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