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Does it make financial sense to buy hybrids? In the long run, yes

With gas prices soaring, Consumer Reports' latest analysis of owner costs shows that drivers can save anywhere from $500 to $4,250 over a five-year ownership period by choosing selected hybrids rather than similar conventional gasoline-powered vehicles.

Six of the 12 hybrids CR experts looked at -- the Toyota Prius and hybrid versions of the Chevrolet Malibu, Chevrolet Tahoe, Ford Escape, Saturn Vue and Toyota Camry -- can save consumers about $500 to $4,250 even without tax credits, and pay back their price premium after only one year. For several of these hybrids, owners can save even more by taking advantage of federal tax credits.

CR experts compared the five-year owner costs of 12 hybrids with those of similar conventional vehicles using CR's new-car owner-cost estimates.

The Toyota Camry hybrid, which gets 34 mpg overall in CR's tests, saves the most money, about $4,250 over five years compared with a similarly equipped four-cylinder Toyota Camry XLE, which gets 24 mpg.

The Saturn Vue Greenline Hybrid can save about $3,000, while the Toyota Prius and Chevrolet Tahoe save $2,000 and $1,500 respectively, when compared to their nonhybrid counterparts. With tax credits, the Vue and Tahoe come out ahead by about $4,500 and $3,700. Federal tax incentives no longer are available for Toyota and Lexus hybrids.

It would take many years for most hybrids to pay back their premium price just on fuel savings alone. But fuel costs are a relatively small part -- 25 percent -- of the overall owner costs in the first five years. Other factors include depreciation, insurance, interest on financing, maintenance and repairs, and sales tax.

Cost estimates were based on driving 12,000 miles per year and paying $4 per gallon for regular gasoline and $4.20 for premium.

The Honda Civic, Nissan Altima and Saturn Aura hybrids will cost drivers a little more than their conventional counterparts -- from $250 to $750 over five years -- but some consumers might find it worthwhile to drive a more environmentally friendly car. With federal tax incentives, all three come out ahead after just one year.

Three hybrids -- the Lexus GS 450h and RX 400h and the Toyota Highlander Hybrid -- cost more than their counterparts in the first five years. They show five-year losses ranging from about $1,250 for the Highlander to $5,500 for the GS.

HYBRIDS VS. CONVENTIONAL CARS -- Interest in hybrids has been on a parallel trajectory with gas prices. Hybrid sales jumped almost 40 percent last year. According to a recent CR survey, 32 percent of active car shoppers are considering a hybrid for their next vehicle. And this past summer, automakers had a difficult time keeping up with demand for the most popular models.

In addition to being thrifty with fuel, hybrids emit less pollution, with some models classified as partial zero emission vehicles by the California Air Resources Board. They also release fewer greenhouse gases because each gallon of gasoline not burned prevents the emission of 19 pounds of carbon dioxide.

THE BOTTOM LINE -- With higher gas prices, many hybrids now provide a definite benefit in overall owner cost, despite an initial price premium. Still, if saving money right out of the gate is important, some conventional cars provide good fuel economy and cost less than hybrids. CR advises drivers to decide what type of vehicle is right for them and then to choose one that gets good gas mileage for its class and rates highly in CR's road tests and reliability, safety and ownership-cost ratings.

On the Net:

www.consumerreports.org.

NEWSPAPER ENTERPRISE ASSOCIATION

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