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Does It Make Dollars and Sense to Buy a Hybrid?


Prius with environmental message

Prius with environmental message

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Is it time to buy a hybrid? That’s a question a large portion of American auto buyers seem to be asking these days. And there’s little doubt that for many motorists, the answer is yes.

Toyota, for example, reports that its stock of Prius hybrids has fallen to the lowest level in two years, despite production increases. Ford Motor Co. hopes to double the number of gasoline-electric vehicles it’s selling with the addition of new hybrid versions of the Fusion and Milan sedans. And both General Motors and Chrysler anticipate tapping into a burgeoning market with new offerings, many of them, like the Cadillac Escalade Hybrid and Dodge Aspen Hybrid, aimed at truck buyers facing fuel price sticker shock.

But that brings us back to the original question: is it time to buy one for yourself? The answer is an unequivocal maybe. There are a number of factors to consider:

• Is the right hybrid available for you? Is there an offering in the right segment of the market?
• What are the reasons behind your interest in hybrids? Are you simply looking to save money on fuel? Are you hoping to be a better friend to the Earth?
• Does a hybrid make sense considering the way you drive?
• Then look at the dollars and cents, the premium you’re likely to pay for a hybrid product, versus the savings on fuel.

Let’s deal with these issues in order.

When the first hybrids appeared on the U.S. market, nearly a decade ago, they were limited-function specialty vehicles. Honda’s Insight was a teardrop-shaped two-seater that sacrificed performance, comfort, and flexibility for high mileage. Toyota’s early Prius was roomier but also slow and Spartan.

These days, though, manufacturers are racing to market with an array of hybrid alternatives that increasingly cover the spectrum, from econocars to premium luxury vehicles, never mind crossovers and light trucks. At the low end of the passenger car spectrum, there’s the Honda Civic Hybrid, at the highline extreme, the Lexus LS600h. For those who prefer something more truck-like, Ford was first to market in the compact crossover/SUV segment with its Escape Hybrid. Toyota’s Highlander Hybrid broadened that range, and now, Chrysler and GM are filling in the full-size niche. You’ll see even more offerings, going forward, from virtually every nameplate in the U.S. market.

So if you’ve found something that appeals, ask yourself why you want a hybrid. If you’re a diehard environmentalist, you may simply want to find something, anything, that reduces your dependence on fossil fuel. It’s hard to argue against that emotional stand, but make sure the hybrid you like lives up to your expectations.

Some models, such as the performance-tuned Lexus HEVs, actually deliver relatively little improvement over comparable gasoline engines. And in several mileage “shoot-offs,” diesel-powered alternatives have turned in significantly better fuel economy. The new diesel-powered Mercedes ML crossover, for example, will both outperform the Lexus RX, and drive further per gallon, especially if you’re doing a lot of highway driving. Indeed, if it weren’t for the huge premium you’re currently paying at the pump for diesel, you’d generally be better off considering such an option.

Which leads to the question: what sort of driving do you do? Hybrids save fuel by capturing and reusing energy normally lost during braking and coasting. By definition, that means they do best in stop-and-go urban driving conditions – and why many models, such as the Escape Hybrid, actually have higher EPA city mileage ratings than in the federal highway category. (For the ’09 Escape, that’s 34 mpg compared to 30 mpg, respectively.) If you’re mostly driving on open roads, with little stopping, a hybrid may not be a good choice.

OK, so you’ve found a model you like, one that has a significantly better mileage rating than a comparable gas or diesel vehicle, and you’re going to be stuck in traffic much of the time. Now, let’s do the math.

Let’s go back to the Escape, a “full” hybrid, one that can run on battery power alone, for short distances and at lower speeds. According to Ford officials, a typical motorist, doing 15,000 miles a year, will use 500 gallons of gas annually, in the Hybrid, and 555 gallons in an Escape with an I-4 engine. If gas holds at $4, that would work out to a savings of $220 annually. Keep the crossover for six years and you’ll save $1,320. But the premium for the Escape Hybrid is a whopping $6,000, so it’s not easy to make financial sense out of that equation.

The smaller the price differential, the bigger the improvement in mileage, the better the numbers, obviously. On the street, you’ll likely pay around $1,000 more for a Camry Hybrid compared to the standard four-cylinder version. But the mileage numbers are 34 mpg and 25 mpg, respectively. So, again considering 15,000 miles of yearly driving, and a $4 gallon of gas, you’ll save about 160 gallons, or $640 annually. And in that instance, you’d make up your investment in less than two years.

Be aware that hybrids often deliver far less mileage than the numbers shown on their stickers – though the federal government revised 2008 calculations to try to minimize that gap.

Hybrids aren’t for everyone, but for every increase in fuel prices, they start to make economic – as well as emotional – dollars and sense for more and more American motorists. Just make sure you think through the equation and consider your many alternatives.
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Comments (5)
  1. Paul. "If gas holds at $4.00," I see your point about $1320/$6000 differents. The problem most people have to deal with is the often changing price of gas per gallon and how much they intake over a shorter time verse that car payment that is set at a fix price over a time period in the long run. I would think that most people can handle that $6000 over the six years or what loan term they have. But if these people have to drive 10-40 miles a day one way to work and school and with the price of gas on a upward slope. It hits there bottom line alot quicker over the weeks and months.
     
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  2. I'M SURE THIS IS TOO LATE FOR ANYONE TO SEE BUT HERE GOES ANYWAY....the numbers you use in your article don't make sense. Based on the costs you cite, you are comparing a base Escape ($19,140) with an Escape hybrid ($27,445), about $8,000) different in price; though $6,000 different perhaps if you consider options on the cars. A similarly base 2008 Camry CE ($18,570; edmunds.com) costs from $5,200 to $6,700 less than a Camry hybrid ($25,200). The $1,300 difference you cite for the Camry is between a Camry LE V6 and the Camry V6--not even close to the same comparison of vehicle or mileage savings. Your mileage estimates do check out; based on the EPA conventions at fueleconomy.gov (45% highway mi, 55% city miles; 15,000 miles annually), the Escape hybrid saved 150 gal, the base Camry saved 160.
    My point--the Camry did NOT make back its investment in 2 years; it took a similar time as did the Escape! If I am correct, please acknowledge this in a future column. If not, my apologies.
     
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  3. Paul is right. I was also surprised by Paul's inappropriate comparisons.
    Thge main point is that FEW, if any, private car owners need a hybrid. Hybrids have been marketed to private drivers, who either do few miles a year and they are mostly city, or many miles and they are mostly highway, where a diesel or an efficient gas engine are far better options.
    Hybrids are ideals for Manhattan Taxi drivers, pizza deliveries, Fedex, UPS and US mailtrucks, BUSES and other city fleets, and especially for police cars and meter maid cars that IDLE all the time, polluting the air. A Hybrid would run on its batteries most of the time in a similar situation.
     
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  4. Both Paul and Ed are off base. No one buys a Camry CE.
    The most popular Camry is a 4 cyl LE or perhaps the XLE. To compare a Camry CE to a Hybrid is nuts. The equipment difference makes that an apples to oranges comparision.
    The same with a Prius to a Corolla. An el cheapo Corolla is no where close to the Prius in standard equipment.
    As to Diesels, don't hold your breath. With Diesel at $4.20+ per gallon in S. Jersey, and probably going north from there, very few people are going to buy a diesel.
    I recently rented a Prius in Florida, drove at the legal speeds, 70 on the interstates I used, and got 52.3. Very impressive in my mind. I did nothing special, except use cruse control whenever possible. As you may know Florida is very flat, and I did not spend much time in urbas settings.
     
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  5. Over the last two years I've driven a "Company owned" Prius putting on about 70,000 miles mostly highway. I averaged about 47 mpg with my heavy foot. Now I am looking forward to purchasing a Pruis for myself
     
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