Should Ken Get the Hybrid?

Dear Car Talk

Dear Car Talk | Oct 06, 2015

Dear Car Talk:

I own a 2006 Highlander Hybrid, and I think it is the best vehicle I have ever owned in my 64 years. I trade vehicles every 10 years, and I want to buy a new Toyota Highlander in 2016. Should I get the hybrid, or the standard gasoline engine? I know there are social advantages to the green Highlander, but I don't think the extra cost justifies the gas savings these days. Are there other automotive benefits to the hybrid engine -- better acceleration, etc.? What is your present opinion of the state of the art of the hybrid engine today, and the pros and cons? Thanks!

-- Ken

Well, you're right, Ken: There are social advantages to hybrids. Especially if you're looking to attract dates who care about the environment. There are environmental advantages to hybrids, too, and some people buy them purely for that reason.

And there are mechanical advantages. For instance, in all the years we've now been servicing Toyota Priuses, we've probably done two brake jobs. Because hybrids use regenerative braking to recapture the vehicle's motion, the traditional brakes get used very lightly. In a standard Highlander, you'd probably replace the brakes once, or maybe twice, in 100,000 miles.

Exhaust systems on hybrids last a lot longer, too, because when you're running under battery power, you're not creating exhaust. And, more importantly, you're not creating exhaust in stop-and-go driving, where the greatest amount of rust-inducing moisture is produced.

While you'd expect any Highlander's engine to last at least the 10 years, hybrid engines typically last longer, because they're used less of the time. When you're doing stop-and-go driving, the engine is just sitting there, enjoying the free ride.

So those are the benefits. The primary downside is the hybrid battery system. While Toyota says it expects the battery to last the life of the car, there's no guarantee that you won't need one at some point. Just like a transmission is supposed to last the life of a car, not all of them do. That's how Aamco has stayed in business all these years.

The hybrid battery is warranted for eight years and 80,000 miles (10 years and 150,000 miles in California). But if you go past the warranty period and need a battery, you could be looking at close to $5,000 in a Highlander. Maybe they'll get cheaper in the years between now and when you need one, but who knows?

And if you drive 20,000 miles a year for 10 years, and put 200,000 miles on a car before you trade it in, you could conceivably need a battery toward the end. If you're truly unlucky, you also could need an inverter someday, which is even more expensive. But that's more rare.

So with all that in mind, now let's do the math on the fuel savings. Let's say the difference in cost between the standard Highlander and the Highlander Hybrid is about $5,000. And let's say you drive 20,000 miles a year for 10 years. The EPA says the regular all-wheel-drive Highlander gets an average of 20 mpg, and the hybrid gets 28 overall.

So, if we assume a gasoline price of $3.50 a gallon for the next 10 years, the Highlander would cost you $35,000 in gas. The hybrid would cost you $25,000. So you'd save enough to cover the cost of the hybrid power train, and a battery if you need one.

And you'd get more dates. You'd also get an additional 100 miles in range on each tank before having to stop for gas, if that makes a difference.

So, it's up to you, Ken. A lot of people don't drive enough, or keep a car long enough to recoup the money spent on a hybrid.

You can plug in your own annual mileage and your guess about gas prices, and see what the math says. But it looks like the hybrid might make good sense for you.

Get the Car Talk Newsletter