Hybrid vehicles in Kenya are attractive yet remain a mystery to many.
Behind the scenes, the quest to lower pollution and continued push by foreign nations to reduce gas emissions has made the hybrid vehicles a necessary technology.
However, to the buyer at the local bazaar, it’s almost all about fuel economy.
The hybrid technology turned 25 years old recently, though in Kenya, the vehicles started gaining popularity shortly after 2010.
In 1997, Japanese automaker Toyota, produced the world’s first hybrid car, the Prius, which sold well in other parts of the world before making inroads into Kenya in the run-up to 2010.
Today, based on the hybrid technology, there are vehicles that are fully electric, kissing fossil fuel goodbye for good, and warming the hearts of climate action activists.
The hybrid technology, in simple terms, means that a vehicle is powered by both petrol and electricity, though the two powering agents work in a synchronised manner.
The hybrid system allows for at least one electric motor to be combined with a fuel engine to propel the car.
The technology allows the vehicle to shift to petrol-use from electric upon attaining the speed of about 60 kilometres per hour.
The electric system gets its power from high voltage batteries usually installed in the vehicle by the manufacturer.
The battery is located in different parts of the car, with some automakers placing it in the engine compartment, while others place it in the trunk.
Unlike fully-electric cars, hybrid vehicles are not charged from an external power source, but through integrated starter-alternator (ISA) system.
The alternator’s functions include, but are not limited to, energy recovery during braking or supporting the main engine when starting, increasing power, or accelerating.
Just like all other batteries, the hybrid cells have a lifespan.
The lifespan of most batteries is approximately 80,000 kilometres to 100,000 kilometres of operation.
A hybrid battery does not come cheap. Replacing it, would set you back between Sh250,000 and Sh970,000, depending on battery size and brand.
Its availability is also a concern, experts say.
Elijah Girimani, a businessman in Mombasa, owns the 2012 Toyota Lexus RX450h, which comes equipped with hybrid technology.
“I used to spend Sh8,500 on fuel between Mombasa and Nairobi while using my previous car, a BMW X5. Ever since I bought the Lexus RX450h, I have halved the amount of money I spend on fuel between the two cities,” said Girimani.
The motorist said the car system’s transition from electric functionality to petrol-use is seamless, and the “driver hardly notices”.
“You’ll only realise the vehicle has transitioned to petrol-use when the engine vrooms. When it reverts to electric functionality, the vehicle goes silent,” said the 42-year-old.
Charles Okoth, a mechanic in South B, Nairobi, told The Standard that the petrol functionality kicks in once the vehicle hits about 60 kilometres per hour on the speedometer.
“This allows the vehicle to save on fuel, especially in traffic jams,” he said.
The mechanic said hybrid vehicles “don’t like it when you’re driving on empty fuel tank”.
“Having an empty fuel tank perennially could cause severe damage to the car,” said Okoth.
“Without fuel in the tank, the vehicle over-relies on the hybrid battery. As a result, the battery hardly recharges, thus accelerating its damage,” said Okoth.
Other mechanics who spoke to The Standard said the commonest problem of hybrid vehicles is the leaking or failure of the evaporative emissions system that controls emissions.
Replacement of the system could cost up to Sh90,000.
Another key issue with the hybrid vehicles, is the cost of replacing the hybrid battery, whose prices remain high due to the cost of production.
There are certain hybrid batteries that cost as high as Sh970,000, while the average battery for sedans and relatively small cars costs Sh200,000.
Second-hand batteries, though much cheaper, have shorter lifespans than brand new batteries. A second-hand battery could set you back some Sh50,000.
Insurance companies say hybrid vehicles attract higher premiums compared to fully diesel or petrol-powered vehicles.
Nduta Subo, an insurance sales executive in Nairobi, said the reason hybrid vehicles attract higher insurance fees is because repair costs, in case of accidents and breakdowns, are “ridiculously high”.
Another downside of the hybrid vehicles in the Kenyan market, is the limited number of mechanics and experts who understand the vehicle’s technology well.