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Whether a hybrid is right for you depends on your needs and also your perception of value. You'll pay more for a hybrid than its conventionally powered counterpart. You may, or may not, make up for this extra cost in fuel savings over the years. But recapturing the added cost of a hybrid is not necessarily the primary motivation for purchasing one. The ability to thumb one's nose at high gas prices every time you fuel up is a powerful attraction on its own.

Economics aside, gasoline/electric hybrids appeal because they reduce fuel consumption. Conserving fossil fuels such as gasoline made from petroleum is crucial because fossil fuels are non-renewable, meaning that once we've used up the Earth's supply, that's it, no more. In 2004, the U.S. produced 9 percent of the world's total petroleum output, held 2 percent of the world's crude oil reserves, but consumed 25 percent of petroleum produced globally, according to the U.S. Department of Energy. That's a staggering consumption rate of 20.5 million barrels of oil per day.

Meanwhile, the amount of oil the U.S. imports is at a 31-year high, with 57.8 percent of petroleum consumed by the U.S. in 2004 coming from foreign sources, according to the DOE. It's not hard to see why many large companies in the automotive industry and others are increasingly focusing not only on hybrid-electric technology, but also on other alternative-fuel sources such as hydrogen and ethanol, both of which are renewable.

And let's not forget the other crucial hybrid advantage: extremely low emissions. Drivers of hybrid vehicles actively improve air quality on a personal level without doing anything more than driving their cars. Gasoline/electric hybrids make this possible in several ways, one of which is by splitting power between an internal combustion engine and an electric motor, thereby reducing fuel consumption and tailpipe emissions simultaneously.

Another way that hybrid vehicles help reduce pollution -- arguably the one with greatest impact -- is by shutting down their internal combustion engines in idle traffic, which is when exhaust emissions and fuel consumption are at their highest (you get zero miles per gallon in a gridlock). Some, like Toyota's Prius and Ford's Escape Hybrid, even leave the gasoline engine off at low speeds, relying solely on power from efficient electric motors for motivation from a standstill up to around 25 miles per hour. In California and certain Northeast "green" states (Massachusetts, New York, Vermont and Maine) that have adopted California's more stringent emissions regulations, hybrids are also equipped with near-zero evaporative emission fuel systems, which drastically reduce the toxic emissions that evaporate from gasoline in the car's fuel tank and fuel lines.

Not so long ago, the environmental advantages of conserving fuel and reducing exhaust emissions represented the primary reason many buyers would step up to cutting-edge and comparatively pricier hybrid vehicles. That's changed with spiking gas prices and politicking around dependency on "foreign oil," both of are spurring interest in fuel efficiency. Together, the dual advantages of higher fuel economy and lower emissions present a compelling case for considering a hybrid as your next vehicle.



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