Now that gas prices are hovering around $4 a gallon, many drivers are
becoming more aware of their need to cut their gas costs. And with April being "Earth Month", we've recently been bombarded by messages telling us to make
greener choices to help save our planet.
Many people combine these messages and believe that their best automotive choice to accomplish both these goals is to drive a hybrid vehicle, but others question whether that opinion is really true.
Well, we've done a little research to address these questions and present both the pros and cons of the hybrid myth. However, remember: in the end, it is up to each person to determine what's most important to them, as there are many different ways to address your desire for green transportation.
The Hybrid Platform
In case you live in a cave and had never heard of them, hybrid cars utilize both an electric motor and a gasoline-powered engine, as well as a special system to capture braking energy to store in an onboard battery. These systems work together to efficiently power the vehicle so that it uses minimal amounts of gasoline while also producing reduced emissions as well.
Hybrids can save money through improved fuel economy and reduced fuel costs.
As I stated in my opening, gas is expensive. In fact, gas prices have gone up a dollar a gallon in the last 11 months. OUCH! Philip Dunn at PhysOrg.com (http://www.physorg.com/news10031.html) is just one of many who states the familiar opinion: "Hybrids are the most gasoline efficient of all cars." With that in the fore, it's natural for people to think they are the best way to cut fuel costs.
However, while some hybrids promise economy as high as 45-48 mpg, that's still only about 20% to 35% better than the most fuel-efficient gasoline-powered vehicles - like the Honda Civic, Mini Cooper, or Toyota Yaris, which promise 36 mpg. Hybrids actually promise from 22 at the lowest end to 48 at the highest, with most of them averaging in the high 20s. Getting the highest economy figures also usually requires specialized driving techniques to benefit from the hybrid engine's most efficient output. In truth, much of their fuel efficiency comes from improvements in aerodynamics, weight reduction, and by using a smaller, less powerful gas engine. ANY car will get substantially better mileage just by employing these techniques. (Click the graphic to enlarge to a more legible size.)
Hybrid vehicles cost more up front, but most people assume they will
recoup that cost over the life of the vehicle through reduced fuel
costs. In the long run, if you do an apple-to-apple comparison, it
usually projects out to take many years before this occurs. Click to
enlarge the graphic to the right, which compares the most
fuel-efficient automatic transmission versions of the 2008 Honda Civic,
2008 Toyota Camry, and 2008 Ford Escape 4WD against their Hybrid
counterparts, and shows the manufacturer's suggested retail price (via
Autobytel.com) as well as the EPA economy figures and estimated annual
fuel costs for each vehicle (from www.fueleconomy.gov/).
The EPA estimates these costs based on the assumptions that you travel
15,000 miles per year (55% under city driving conditions and 45% under
highway conditions) and that fuel costs $3.39/gallon for regular
unleaded gasoline and $3.61/gallon for premium. When weighing the
manufacturer's cost of entry against the projected annual fuel costs,
all of these examples will take at least 8 years to break even.
You don't have to buy a hybrid to get good fuel economy. There are many vehicles that offer fuel economy between 25-30 miles per gallon. For more information, click to download the EPA Fuel Economy Guide to check out estimated fuel costs and published mile-per-gallon ratings for all 2008 vehicles to compare. (www.fueleconomy.gov/feg/FEG2008.pdf)
Okay then, what about their clean, earth friendly emissions?
Well, it has also been stated over and over again that hybrid vehicles can cut emissions by as much as 25% to 35% over most gas-powered models, especially in traffic when they are most likely to be using their clean burning electric motors for power.
That's true; but if reducing tailpipe emissions is your main concern, consider a zero- or near-zero emissions vehicle. The cleanest in this group are defined as Partial-Zero-Emissions Vehicles. PZEVs are 90% cleaner than the average new model year car, have zero evaporative emissions, and usually offer a 15-year / 150,000-mile warranty on its emission control components. No evaporative emissions means that they have fewer emissions while being driven than a typical gasoline car has while just sitting idle.
Many PZEV choices are available in model year 2008, such as the BMW 328i; Buick LaCrosse and Lucerne; Chevy Cobalt and Impala; Chrysler Sebring; Dodge Avenger; Ford Focus, Fusion, Taurus, and Taurus X; Honda Accord; Hyundai Elantra; Kia Spectra; Mazda 3 and 6; Mercedes-Benz C350 and E350; Mercury Milan and Sable; Mitsubishi Galant, Outlander and Lancer; Nissan Altima; Pontiac G5 and Grand Prix; Subaru Forester, Legacy, and Outback; Toyota Camry; Volkswagen Jetta, Rabbit, and New Beetle; or Volvo S40 and V50. These cars aren't usually any more expensive than their other gasoline-powered counterparts.
Hybrids also have a dirty secret that many overlook: their nickel metal hydride batteries and big electric motors. The environment suffers through the mining of the metals required to produce those big batteries and motors, and again when they are disposed of at the end of their life cycle.
But, hybrids are cool!
You might look and feel better making a statement in a hybrid vehicle, but you can accomplish the same thing by taking public transportation, riding a bike, walking, or ride-sharing.
Even though most people think they must choose a hybrid vehicle to be truly eco friendly, be aware that you have other options. Depending on your driving style and budget, you might find you can make an equal contribution to the environment simply by choosing a more economical or more emissions-friendly vehicle.
If You Buy a Hybrid, You Can Get a Tax Credit!The entire Hybrid Tax Credit issue is complicated but it boils down to this: According to fueleconomy.gov, Hybrids purchased or placed into service after December 31, 2005 may be eligible for a federal income tax credit of up to $3,400. Credit amounts begin to phase out for a given manufacturer once it has sold over 60,000 eligible vehicles, TOTAL.
(A complete list of vehicles and their remaining tax credits is available here: http://tinyurl.com/54awbz )
According to Consumer Reports (http://tinyurl.com/4khjkw ), “the 2006 tax credit size depends on a vehicle’s estimated fuel economy. While a Toyota Prius was eligible for a credit of $3,150, a four-wheel-drive Ford Escape Hybrid qualified for only $1,950, and a two-wheel-drive Chevrolet Silverado Hybrid got only a token $250.”
However, if a manufacturer--not just a brand--sells more than 60,000 hybrids TOTAL, the credit starts going away. The credit has already begun to phase out for Honda, Toyota, and Lexus hybrids, and others will follow suit as they reach the sales volume target. The Prius’ tax break, for instance, dropped from $3,150 in early 2006 to $788 at the end of September, 2007. After that, Toyota's hybrid rebate disappeared altogether. Hondas will be phased out completely by the end of 2008.
Also, be aware that if you are subject to the federal Alternative Minimum Tax, or AMT, you don’t get the alternate motor vehicles tax credit at all. It's best to consult your own tax professional regarding assumptions on a hybrid purchase if the credit is a determing factor.