Should You Buy a Hybrid - Or Wait?

July 1, 2008
Chevrolet Volt Concept

Chevrolet Volt Concept

When is the right time to buy a hybrid? Should you be heading for the showroom now or waiting for the next generation of this technically complex but fuel-efficient alternatives?

A piece in USA Today raises those questions and is worth touching on in this blog, as regular readers know my cautious appreciation of hybrid-electric powertrain technology.

And you know that while I recognize the somewhat intangible value of doing your bit for Mother Earth, I also recommend you consider carefully the real-world economics of going to an HEV. In surprisingly few instances will the often-modest fuel savings actually pay off in terms of lower ownership costs, start to finish. A new study by Consumer Reports backs that up, listing only the Honda Civic Hybrid and two versions of the Toyota Prius in its top 10 list.

But Chris Woodyard's story poses other reasons to wait, notably the assortment of new and supposedly more advanced hybrids that will be coming soon. In many cases, they're cheaper, too, promise manufacturers like Honda and Toyota.

The paper quotes Mary Ann Wright, one-time head of Ford's hybrid program, and now vice president of Johnson Controls' hybrid battery business, noting that the first question asked by its new customer, Mercedes-Benz, was, "How are we going to get the costs out?"

The new hybrid Honda intends to launch next year - effectively its one-off, uniquely designed answer to the Prius - should carry a lower price premium than current models, like the Civic. Honda CEO Takeo Fukui said, in Tokyo last month, the goal was to trim about $900, or 33 percent, out of the hybrid penalty.

New technology may help improve the fuel-economy advantages, though not always the price, of a hybrid. General Motors is today using industry-standard nickel-metal hydride batteries for hybrid versions of the Saturn Vue, Cadillac Escalade, and others, but it will begin phasing in smaller, lighter, and more powerful lithium-ion batteries over the next few years. It expects the switch to boost fuel economy by 20 percent.

Ford expects its 2009 version of the Escape Hybrid to be able to operate solely on battery power in a wider range of driving conditions, also reducing fuel consumption. The revised powertrain will show up on other models, such as the Fusion, in 2010.

So should you buy now? If you truly feel the need to fly a green flag, that may be all that you should consider. Otherwise, study the economics carefully, and if the decision doesn't weigh in favor of going hybrid today, keep checking back to see what new technology the industry will be bringing to market.

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