How do I know if a hybrid makes sense for me?

Even without gas at $4 a gallon, the economics of hybrids make a certain amount of sense, particularly if you find yourself driving a significant number of miles each year.

For example, let's say you drive 30,000 miles a year, and by purchasing a hybrid you can increase your fuel economy from an average of 30 MPG to 40 MPG. With gas at $2 a gallon, you'll save $500 in fuel costs each year. Whether a hybrid makes economic sense will depend upon the difference in the purchase price, minus any tax credit you may receive for buying a hybrid vehicle. (You can get more details, plus tax information right here.)

If you can pay off the difference in the amount of time you usually keep a car, it would make reasonably good economic sense to buy a hybrid. It's also worth noting that Toyota is beginning a program for certified used hybrids, so if you're thinking of going the used hybrid route but want the security of a dealer warranty, that might be a good choice.

Here's another consideration. Most of us now buy our vehicles using car loans. And while a hybrid may have a total cost that's $3,000 to $4,000 higher than its conventional version, you'll only pay a few bucks more per month on your loan - additional costs that might well be offset by the fuel savings you'll be getting right away.

There are other reasons to buy a hybrid, of course. You've got a bit of insurance against the chance that the price of gas will start going up again. And if gas does skyrocket, your savings will only increase. Finally, whatever happens, you'll be doing your part to reduce pollution, minimize greenhouse gasses, and reduce America's oil consumption, for which we wholeheartedly applaud you.


Does engine size matter?

Not if you're a hybrid. Here's why.

In our opinion, today's conventional vehicles are vastly overpowered. A standard sedan typically has a 200 horsepower engine. Every once in a while, you'll use that power to pass someone on the highway. However, for the vast majority of driving we do, you're actually only using 30 to 40 horsepower. No kidding.

Here's a shocker: Because carmakers consistently used technology advances to make new vehicles more powerful over the years, cars averaged 14 mpg in 1923, the University of Michigan reports, and a measly 17.4 MPG as recently as 2008.

Instead, a hybrid uses a more appropriately sized gasoline engine, and supplements it with a high torque electric motor. The result is that the gasoline engine can run at a lower, more efficient speed, and let the electric motor help with the heavy lifting. You get increased efficiency from the conventional, gas engine - and better MPG.


Toyota, Honda, or something else: Which system is right for me?

Broadly speaking, vehicles that use Toyota's hybrid system are likely to be better for urban drivers. The one big exception to this rule is Ford's Fusion hybrid, which racks up some remarkable MPG ratings in the city -- 41 MPG compared to 33 MPG for the Camry. Ford's C-MAX Hybrid does even better -- 47 MPG both in the city and on the highway. Generally speaking, the system found in the Honda and Lexus models favor highway driving, and offers increased performance plus a marginal improvement in mileage.


Where should I get it serviced -- dealer or independent?

Your dealer will certainly be the most familiar with your hybrid because he'll see more of them than anyone else. He'll also know about common problems and service actions that may save you time and money. This is especially true during the warranty period. So for anything that's unique to a hybrid - the hybrid batteries, the electric motors or the hybrid electronics or even stuff like the electric power steering that's showing up on some hybrids - you'd do well to stick with the dealer. However, a lot of a hybrid car is just like any other car. So for routine service such as tires, brakes, shocks and oil changes, you can take a hybrid anywhere you like.

In time independent shops will gain more experience on hybrids. The question is, do you want them to gain that experience on your car? Are you willing to put up with a few nasty engine conflagrations while Crusty gets up to speed on the new Fusion? If not, be sure to ask your regular mechanic how much experience he's had with hybrid drive systems. Find out if he's taken any courses in hybrid repair and safety. Here's just one example of why that matters. It's easy to accidentally leave a hybrid in the "on" mode. Now, imagine that car on a lift, drained of oil during an oil change. Suddenly, the car's computer decides it needs to turn on the engine. Result? One cooked engine.

If your mechanic is someone you have a relationship with, and he's honest enough to send you to the dealer when an issue is outside of his area of expertise, then you can always start with him. If not, consider starting with the dealer for anything weird, and using your local guy for the basics.


Is there a lot more service involved... And will it be more expensive when it happens?

We don't think there will be more service involved -- but the reliability of the hybrid power plant, particularly as it ages, is still somewhat of an unknown. However, hybrid manufacturers are offering good warranties on most or all of the hybrid components. Toyota offers an eight-year/100,000-mile warranty on its hybrid components in the Prius. Honda's hybrid battery pack comes with an 8-year/80,000-mile warranty, or a 10-year/150,000-mile warranty if you happen to live in California, or a dozen other states, as well as the District of Columbia.

And there's some good news emerging on the hybrid repair front. A recent report shows that repair costs of hybrids are about the same of non-hybrid cars. It used to be true that repairing a Prius sent you to your home equity line of credit, with the average repair of a Prius running about eight percent more than a similar sized sedan. But now that more hybrids are on the road - and as a result more used parts are available - repair costs for hybrids are now about equal to their non-hybrid equivalent.


Isn't it true that no one knows how long the batteries will last, and that having to replace them could cost several thousand dollars?

The jury is still out on the longevity of the hybrid battery bank. To date, however, they've proven themselves to be fairly hardy. Toyota is pretty confident; they say that their batteries are expected to last the lifetime of the vehicle, and that lab tests show that they can go the equivalent of 180,000 miles with no deterioration. We have no idea if Ford's results will be similar. Honda says its battery packs are designed to last 10 years under normal driving conditions. Honda, Ford and Toyota all warrantee their battery packs for eight years or at least 80,000 miles.

Still, the batteries are the unknown variable in the long-term costs of maintaining a hybrid vehicle. All we can say for sure is that if you drive a hybrid far enough, you'll eventually need to replace the battery pack. As an example, the Prius battery pack will set you back a little over $2,000 when the time comes. But if you've driven a car for 150,000 or 200,000 miles, that's not so terrible, is it? It's actually more of a concern for people buying high mileage, used hybrids.


Will hybrids break down more often?

We certainly hope so! Remember: we're mechanics. But, so far, hybrids have proven remarkably durable. There's a good reason for this. Most of each hybrid vehicle is made from existing technology: brakes, tires, exhaust system, the conventional gas engine, shocks -- even the classic, pine tree air freshener.

As of this writing, the earliest hybrids are now more than 10 years old. We're about to find out how the cost of replacing the batteries will impact the perception of hybrids -- especially those that are about to come onto the used car market.


I've heard that hybrid vehicles involved in a crash pose a danger to emergency personnel, because those workers might get electrocuted by cutting through a high-voltage cable. I'd hate to live with the guilt of zapping my neighborhood volunteer EMTs!

The automakers have addressed this concern by painting the high-voltage lines a bright orange color and encasing the lines in metal housings beneath the passenger compartment, where they're well out of the way. In addition, they've put their rescue procedures online, and offered training courses to emergency responders. In fact, the California Air Resources Board has found that these "vehicles pose no additional risks over a conventional vehicle," and the National Highway Traffic Safety Administration is not aware of any deaths of EMT personnel - and there's about a million hybrid vehicles on the road. We do worry, however, about those folks who aren't trained, such as tow truck drivers and Good Samaritans.


What federal tax incentives are available for hybrid owners?

Currently, the federal government provides a one-time, income-tax credit ranging from $250 for a two-wheel drive Chevy Silverado to $3,400 for the Ford Fusion, but the credits will be phased out as each manufacturer reaches sales of 60,000 -- the idea is to help get hybrids onto the nation's roads, not to provide every hybrid buyer with a tax break.

Once 60,000 sales are rung up, a one-year phase out will begin with the ensuing quarter of the calendar year; half the credit will be offered for the first two quarters, and a fourth of the credit in the final two quarters of the year. Forget about getting a credit on the big-selling Toyota Prius. Federal tax credits for both Toyota and Honda have already been phased out. Credit is still available for Ford, GM and Nissan hybrids.

At the state and local levels, there's a confounding mess of deductions and exemptions, including legislation that welcomes hybrids in high-occupancy-vehicle (or HOV) lanes. It's all too much to go into here; check out the Environmental Protection Agency's Fuel Economy website to find out what's up in your neck of the woods.


How cost effective are hybrids? Is it true that I might not make back the upfront investment?

The catch with hybrids used to be that they would only pay for themselves, for the average driver, if the price of gasoline hovers around $3 a gallon or more. The Civic Hybrid, for example, costs $4,000 more than its non-hybrid counterpart. Even if gas were $2.00 a gallon, it would take around 200,000 miles to break even on fuel costs alone.

While it's currently true that hybrids aren't likely to pay for their premium in fuel savings alone, there are other cost savings to consider. It is possible to lower that break-even point with tax breaks. There are tax advantages to owning a hybrid, but they vary widely, depending on the vehicle and the state you live in.

You should also consider repair and maintenance costs, insurance, and depreciation when factoring in the real cost of a hybrid. Until recently, there was cause for worry that your local dealer or independent shop wasn't equipped to handle hybrids, but that's not much of a worry with so many of them on the road now.

Still, you will need to sit down, take an hour or two, and do the math. You might be surprised to find that while you do have to shell out some extra cash up front, and repair costs could be higher, a hybrid might still be worth the extra dough. Then you can run a few different scenarios, with gasoline at $2, $3, $4, and, just for fun, $5, $6, and $7.

Then there's the morality factor. How much is it worth to you to pollute less? To make the country less dependent on oil? To smirk quietly to yourself while the guy in the Tahoe, in front of you at the pumps, is putting 30 gallons into his rig for the second time in a week, while you fill up so infrequently, you can't even remember which side your gas filler is on?

Finally, before you run out and join the ranks of the silent-at-the-stop-sign elite, take a moment to consider buying a vehicle with a traditional engine. Do the math, and see if the hybrid premium makes sense for you. There are a number of conventional cars that are just as fuel-efficient as some hybrids. Our pals at cars.com have compiled a list of some of the highest mileage, conventional cars.


What about the resale value of a hybrid?

When it comes to holding their value, hybrids do reasonably well compared to conventional vehicles. Take a Toyota Prius, for example. For instance, a 2008 base model Prius sold for $20,930 when it was new. A used, similarly equipped 2008 Prius in excellent condition now lists for $13,120 in Kelly Blue Book. Even the Ford Escape Hybrid fairs well. A 2008 4WD model listed for $27,775. A used 2008 is now $15,442. That's not bad for a car of that vintage. The conventional '08 Ford Escape, which lost over $4,000 during its first year.

How about down the road, when you've racked up 75,000 miles, burned through a pallet of air-fresheners and left your butt-print permanently etched on the seats? At that point, the resale value of hybrids seems to have depreciated about the same percentage as comparable, conventional vehicles. According to Kelly Blue Book, after five years, a Prius is expected to hold 46 percent of its sticker price, compared to 48 percent for the Toyota Corolla, the Prius' closest non-hybrid equivalents. The Toyota Camry and Camry hybrid each holds onto 37 percent of their resale value, after five years. The Ford Escape Hybrid, hangs onto 24 percent of its sticker price, compared with 19 percent for the conventional Ford Escape.
 

Our projections are subject to plenty of error, along with the whims of the marketplace. In general, however, recent, popular hybrids have tended to hold their resale values so far. Why is this? It could be the coolness factor. Or, maybe it's the fear of yo-yoing gas prices? Or the lust for new technology. Whatever the reason, hybrids like the Prius are in pretty steady demand -- more so, obviously, when gas prices spike. During times of high gas prices, hybrid buyers can expect to find themselves on waiting lists, and paying top dollar when their names finally come up. All of which makes a used Prius that much more valuable.

A caveat about hybrids not depreciating all that quickly is that they're fairly expensive as used cars. Sometimes it just pays to buy new.


What about operating costs?

Okay, so you've plunked down the money and bought yourself a hybrid. Now what can you expect? A recent study by Consumer Reports showed that drivers can expect to save between $500 to $4,250 over a five-year period by driving a hybrid, when compared to a similarly sized conventional car. (And that number doesn't include any possible tax credits.)

The Consumer's study also found that it could take as little as one year to pay off the hybrid price premium in some instances. How can this be? Because the savings aren't based on fuel savings, alone. Once you factor in all the costs of car ownership -- depreciation, maintenance, repairs, insurance, fuel and sales tax -- that extra dinero you fork out upfront could come back to you sooner than expected. (Besides, what else are you going to do with it? Put it in the stock market?) Of course, your actual savings will depend on gas prices, which rebates and tax incentives are available, and how many miles you rack up visiting Great-Aunt Gilda.


Available Models

Hybrids have come a long way since the first Honda Insight appeared in 1999. Back then, being a free-range, tofu-munching hybrid driver just meant that you had to sacrifice a few small things -- like looks, comfort, space for your groceries, a quiet ride, safety, and -- oh yes -- room for more than one passenger. Then, in 2001, along came the Prius, a small, but more-normal-sized, four-door sedan that looked and drove like a real car.

Now, there are no fewer than a dozen true hybrid vehicles on the market, including popular sedans like the Prius (with the V wagon, the C compact and the Plug-In Hybrid added to the lineup), Honda Civic, Insight and CR-Z, and Ford Fusion, and utility vehicles like the Ford C-MAX Hybrid, Toyota Highlander and Lexus CT and ES. If that isn't enough, there are also even more fuel-efficient plug-in hybrids to choose from, including the aforementioned Prius, the Chevy Volt, the Fisker Karma and the Ford C-MAX Energi.

Want more information on specific models? Here's info on MPG, ownership costs, and rebates, along with photos, expert and customer reviews.

Cars.com Hybrid Buying Guide

Hybrid Center -- A Project of the Union of Concerned Scientists


 

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