Is a Hybrid Worth It?

This post is partially in response to a post linked to from Slashdot on whether hybrids will save you money. The article is mostly fair, but appears to be written with a slight slant against hybrids. It also makes a couple of naive assumptions: That buying a new car might save you money (puhleez!) and that a Prius is basically an economy car with a hybrid drivetrain.

The article asks whether, based on fuel savings alone, it would be worth replacing a paid-for 1999 Accord with a new Prius. While buying a new fridge will often pay for itself in a few years, for most reasonable sets of circumstances, you will never save enough in fuel costs to offset the cost of a new vehicle. Sure, if you commute 18,000 miles per year in a 12-mpg land barge and replace it with a Kia, you'll save about 30 bucks a month, but that's definitely an edge case. Replacing any late model car with a brand-new hybrid is going to be a money loser.

The article also suggests a Toyota Corolla as an alternative to the Prius. What I don't think the article makes clear is how much nicer a Prius is than even a top-of-the line Corolla. Though somewhat smaller, it's much closer to a Camry in overall features and comfort, and a comparable Camry is only about $2000 cheaper. Sure, the Prius is similar to the Corolla in performance, but I'm sure I could find a Mercedes sedan that is similar in performance to an '82 Camaro.

To do an apples-to-apples comparison, you'd be better off comparing a new Civic EX automatic to a new Civic Hybrid CVT (which is quite comparable outside of a drag race). The latter is $1790 more expensive, but uses a half gallon less fuel per 100 miles of highway driving and 1.3 gallons less for the same amount of city driving.*

From the above, it's pretty clear we can come up with a realistic scenario where buying the hybrid will save you money. Assuming the life of the car is 10 years and you're paying six percent interest, you'll spend an extra $31 a month for the hybrid in car payments (With a typical car loan you'd actually pay $54 extra a month for the first five years and nothing for the next five). At $3 a gallon (probably an unreasonably low average for the next 10 years), the break-even point is 23,000 miles of highway driving per year or 9340 miles of city driving. Neither of these situations are outlandish enough to be dismissed out of hand.

But wait, there's more! Governments—particularly those like the United States' that subsidize driving private vehicles—have realized that the air quality and energy security benefits are worth money and have enacted tax incentives that bring down the price by something like $2500.** So if you're buying a new car and can put up with a slower On-Ramp Grand Prix time, there's really no reason not to go hybrid.

*Note that stating fuel economy figures in miles per gallon is kind of dumb. Adding one mile per gallon to a 10-mile-per-gallon car saves as much money and fuel for a given amount of driving as doubling the fuel economy of a 50-mile-per-gallon car. Stating the reciprocal instead makes this clear. The Europeans have figured this out and state their figures in liters per hundred kilometers.

**My high school history teacher always used to say that there are two reasons for everything: a good one and the real one. This is the good reason. The real one is left as an exercise for the reader.


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