Hybrids have gone mainstream — when was the last time you got excited at seeing a Toyota Prius parked in front of the local food co-op? That’s the elementary school principal behind the wheel, too — not the tie-dye merchant from the jam band festival. Almost all of the major manufacturers offer some kind of hybrid vehicle and some, such as Toyota/Lexus, offer as many as 10.
Hybrids are still only two- to three-percent of the market in the U.S., and their sales fluctuate with gas prices. From 2007 to 2009, hybrids enjoyed strong sales growth, thanks to technological improvements, cost reductions and continuing consumer concern about the stability of gas prices. Well over two million hybrids have been sold in the U.S. so far (and the ever-popular Prius accounts for more than a million of those sales). Some models, like the Toyota Prius, had waiting lists when fuel costs shot up. Hybrid owners are quick to tout their benefits: which include increased MPG, decent resale values and lower carbon footprints. Hybrids are complicated, with both electric and gasoline drivetrains, so naysayers thought they’d end up helping make boat payments for repair shops from Maine to California. But in fact they’ve been among the most reliable cars on the road. Consumer Reports recently tested a 2002 Prius with more than 200,000 miles on it, and said it performed like a new car.
The good news is that the competition among automakers and technical breakthroughs mean more choices for car buyers, and downward pressure on hybrid prices. There are dozens of hybrids available, with new models coming out every year. You can buy a hybrid as small as a Honda CR-Z or as gigantic as a Chevy Silverado. The laws of physics still apply, though. So the bigger and heavier the vehicle, the worse mileage you’ll get, and the bigger your carbon footprint will be. A “hybrid” nameplate slapped on the side doesn’t guarantee good fuel economy.
In fact, you'll notice that some of the ginormous hybrid trucks are able to claim huge percentage improvements in fuel economy. But that's only because their MPG numbers were so low to begin with. Going from 12 MPG to 15 MPG is a 25 percent improvement! Yeah, but it's still lousy. So unless you really need a huge vehicle, we recommend you still avoid buying a bigger car than you need. Even as a hybrid, that Silverado gets only 20 MPG around town.
Will hybrids continue to grow in popularity? It’s very likely, especially if gas prices rise — as many experts predict they will. Hybrid sales slowed down in 2010 with relatively stable prices, but then went up again at the end of 2011 as gasoline see-sawed. It seems that, for many of us, $4 a gallon is the tipping point. Who doesn’t “go green” when filling up your car costs as much as a mortgage payment? The fact is, hybrids are pretty good options right now. A hybrid offers everything a traditional gasoline vehicle offers, with (in many cases) significantly higher fuel efficiency. They do cost more, but when there’s pain at the pumps they pay for themselves pretty quickly. And if that's not enough, hybrids usually have very low emissions, so they’re also a relatively painless way to reduce your car's carbon footprint. And that'll allow you to walk around with a wonderful, smug feeling at the next Sierra Club composting party.