A Good Time to Buy a Hybrid?

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Cheap gas is making hybrids seem like less of a deal. Which in turn is making them harder to sell.

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Which is tough nuts for those trying to sell them – but could be really good news for you, if you’re thinking seriously about trying to buy one.

Consider the Toyota Prius – the best-known (and best-selling) hybrid. Its base price is $24,200 and it can travel about 588 miles (combined city/highway) on 12 gallons of gas (full tank).

As compared with the Toyota Camry sedan (non-hybrid version). With the four-cylinder engine, the base price is $22,970 and it can travel about 510 miles on 17 gallons of gas (also full tank).

When gas was $4 a gallon, the “fill up bite” was much more noticeable, Camry vs. Prius. About $70 for the Camry vs. $50 for the Prius.

Which made the Prius a more appealing buy.

But today? With gas at $2 a gallon?  It only costs about $34 to fill up the Camry now – vs. $24 for the Prius. A difference of about $10.

On the other hand, if you bought the Prius, you’d be out of pocket $1,230 more “up front” for the car itself than you would have been if you’d bought the Camry instead. And at the current $2 per gallon for regular unleaded, that $,1230 will buy 615 gallons of gasoline. Which works out to a bit more than 36 full tanks of fuel, or the equivalent of just over 18,000 miles of driving before the Camry would cost you more to operate than the Prius. For most people, 18,000 miles equals about two years’ of driving. That’s a long time to wait to break even.car dealer 1

Which probably explains why sales of new hybrids are trending downward along with the cost of gas.      

The upside here is that this may be the best time ever to shop for a  new hybrid – precisely because the low cost of gas is making hybrids a harder sell. When gas was $4 a gallon, buyer desperation for high-efficiency cars meant they’d be paying top dollar to get their hands on one. Toyota (and everyone else) could – and did – sell them at full sticker price, plus markup. Forget haggling. Next in line, please!

But with gas cheap again – even if it’s only temporary – you’re in a much stronger position to knock down the price of a hybrid. Dealers are getting edgy as the inventory accumulates and with each new drop in the price of gas, they’re getting hotter under the collar. Use this leverage before you lose it.

Some things to bear in mind, though, before you go shopping:

* Hybrids do best at 45 MPH or less.

Actually, they do best when not moving at all. Because – typically – the gas engine will turn off and (assuming the battery pack is charged up) the car can be creeped along on electricity only (or at least, mostly) to the next red light. But if you do a lot of driving at sustained speeds over 45 MPH, be aware that your mileage may be disappointing. The Prius’ rated 48 MPG on the highway is no longer all that exceptional. A diesel-powered car will match it and many current gas-engined economy cars can come very close – for much less money. hybrid 1    

* Hybrids are (typically) noisier (and slower) than otherwise similar non hybrids.

This is due to two things: Hybrids typically have a gas engine that’s smaller than it would otherwise be, if the car were not a hybrid. The little engine has to work harder to get the car moving, even with the assistance of electric motors and battery power. Also, most hybrids have a continuously variable (CVT) automatic transmission, a type of transmission that does not up or downshift but lets the engine rev – and holds it there as the car accelerates. This is efficient – but noisy. On flat terrain and in light, undemanding traffic, hybrids perform well – and quietly. But if you have to deal with steep grades and busy traffic that requires right now power/performance, be aware that your hybrid may seem (and sound) like it’s struggling. Because it is.

* There could be issues down the road with reduced battery performance.

All batteries get weaker over time, as a result of chemical changes within the batteries’ matrix and the repeated charge/discharge/recharge cycling. In a hybrid, declining battery performance will manifest as downward-creeping fuel economy as the gas engine is forced to do more and more of the work of propelling the car. The fix is a new battery pack (or individual cells within the pack, as necessary). But that isn’t inexpensive – and could bite (hard) into your total cost of ownership.

Some upsides:

* Lower (or no) maintenance.

The gas engine in a hybrid car is frequently not running, even though the car is moving. This extends oil change (and air filter) intervals considerably. Also, most hybrids have electrically-driven accessories such as power steering and even (in some cases) the air conditioner. This means belts last longer – or may not be there at all. Most hybrids also come fitted with sane-sized fifteen or sixteen inch tires of the low rolling resistance (and long-lived) variety that can last 50,000 miles before baldness sets in – and which are fairly cheap to replace vs. the currently trendy and commonplace 17, 18 (and much larger than that) “performance” tires that have become typical rolling stock on even family-type cars such as the Camry discussed above.

* Short-haul (and low-speed) drivers could spend next to nothing on gas.

If you have a short commute – and can do it at 25 MPH or less – it is very possible to get there in a hybrid like the Prius without burning any gas at all. Or, very little of it. If you can manage that, a hybrid will save you a lot of money – even if the price of gas falls by another 50 cents.

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  1. My wife just had to replace the battery pack on her Honda Civic hybrid: A $3,000 hit to the family finances. The car is quite a few years old, but still, the potential for that kind of wallet shock would scare me off from another hybrid, unless the technology has improved to the point where that kind of battery failure — or the cost of fixing it — has changed for the better.

      • I know a guy who had to replace the battery in his Civic-hybrid after 10 years. But I don’t know how much or how hard it was driven.

        • Hi Steve,

          Seven years. That’s not good. I’d be unhappy if a transmission – if a clutch – gave out after just seven years.

          I wonder whether your experience is typical or common?

          • I don’t know what her mileage is (the car isn’t here for me to check at the moment), but she has put a lot of miles on it. When it was new we took a cross-country trip, and she drives a lot (though mostly in the area) for work. I assume it’s the miles more than the years, per se, that took their toll. But yeah, that was a bummer that it happened. Our mechanic did not seem particularly surprised, but I neglected to ask him how long he typically sees hybrids go before the battery needs replacing.

  2. Hi Eric,
    I bought a 2012 Camry Hybrid LE in Sept of 2012 and have over 60,000 miles on it now, so my views are based on some experience.
    1. Comparing the Prius to the Camry is not entirely apples-to-apples. Headroom is nowhere near the same, and (FWIW) the base Camry 4-cyl is, like the Prius, a dog with no get-up-and-go.
    2. The Camry Hybrid seems as quiet to me across the spectrum of normal use as a 1995 V6 Camry, and the CVT yields a wonderfully smooth experience–I’ll probably never go back to a conventional AT.
    3. The Camry Hybrid has decent acceleration, supposedly rated at equivalent to a 200 hp conventional engine (while the 4-cyl is rated at 178 hp and the V6 at 268 hp).
    4. The 4-cyl engine in the hybrid is the same displacement (2.5L) as in the standard 4-cyl Camry. It may be slightly different, but it seems to not be “working harder” in the hybrid guise than in the standard (base) model.

    “Around town,” once the engine is warmed up and when the outside temp is >50 or so, I often get over 50 mpg if I nurse the accelerator and maximize “full electric” operation. In summer I average about 41-42 mpg and that’s with 80% of miles at 70 mph, so the car’s economy is not limited to sub-45 mph driving.

    Two negatives to the hybrid: First, in cold temps mpg plummet due to the gas engine running just to stay at operating temp (made worse if using the cabin heater, which bleeds heat from the cooling system) and greater rolling resistance in general (made worse with winter tires). Second, there’s a noticeable whine at very low speeds which may annoy some people.

    The biggest reason I bought the hybrid was range. In the summer, I estimate a near 700 mile radius from its 17 gal fuel tank, and that’s not compromised by getting stuck in traffic. For a salesman’s car, this means a lot fewer stops at the gas station. What really clinched it for me was that the base Camry was simply too underpowered. The hybrid restores at least half of the fun-factor of the V6 version, which in my non-sports-car world is a little rocket ship.

    The long run is unknown. Battery cell failure may be a concern, and I have no experience with the longevity of CVT’s or the “Synergy” system that enables full hybrid operation. I keep cars a long, long time so I guess I’ll find out.

    PS: I wish someone would develop a plug-in that allowed customization on the fly of the operation preferences; imagine if I could tell the ECU that I wanted the fuel-hybrid map to optimize for full electric operation, for instance (letting the car, instead of me, nurse the accelerator)? The car has two map-modes available (regular and “eco”) which basically just change the responsiveness of the throttle, but I imagine a much larger spectrum of operating parameters are possible.

  3. My Chevy Volt suits my driving demands pretty well. My most frequent trips are all under the electric range of the Volt (32-40 miles). I never use gas during my daily commutes. My gas tank is allegedly 10 gallons but I’ve never put more than 8.8 gallons in it and usually drop in about 4 or 5 before I make the 200-mile round-trip to my mother’s place.

    So my cost per/mile on electric only is about $.05 per mile. Even so, the premium on a brand new Volt would never be paid back by fuel savings over the life of the loan especially with the low miles I put on any car. I just like driving electric without having to carry a huge battery.

    So my obvious choice was to wait until the pricey car comes of its first lease and buy one used. This is what I did. Now that it was down in in the neighborhood of a car price I was willing to pay, I got one to sit beside my 2000 Buick Century.

    As a result, I spend less on gas per month than most other things I buy. I spent more on an oil change on the Buick than I did for the last six months of gas I used in it.

    My only concern is what the cost will be to eventually replace the large drive battery and what repairs will cost when the car goes off warranty in 6 years. It has lots and lots of electronic components and power and remote everything (except, oddly, for the driver’s seat).

    I like this car more than any I’ve ever had. It rides smooth and it is quick off the line.

    Things to keep an eye on will be the 12-volt battery that powers the accessories and computers (and can be victim power drain if a module stays awake that isn’t supposed to), the low rolling resistance tires which other owners say are not particularly robust (it carries a pump in place of a spare), and, of course, the monthly payment.

    • Hi Shock,

      You definitely did a smart thing buying a used Volt! And the way you drive makes the car itself make sense.

      I think part of the problem with EVs (and even hybrids) is that they are not marketed honestly. That is, if they were touted as great for short trip/low speed/city-suburban commuting, I think they’d sell better. Not only that, it would take off some of the pressure to get EVs and hybrids to perform in areas where they are (for the present) weaker than IC cars. Why not focus development on optimizing them as “city” cars… and wait for the technology to mature?

      • Agreed. The Volt is definitely well-suited as a city car as well as longer trips of 320 to 400 miles (after which the mileage plummets to normal new car ranges).

        Given that it operates first as an EV and then second as a serial hybrid, the Volt should be promoted as a supreme daily commuter vehicle for people with an available plug.

        And since it is no worse on the highway mileage than many existing newer vehicles that isn’t really a strike against it for long-range highway driving either.

        Without an extensive recharging network in place, it serves no one to say electric-only EVs can replace gas or diesel vehicles in long range driving .

  4. Dang it you almost sold me on a hybrid,that fits a lot of my driving-What I want to know is,can drive any of these things for say 20 miles on electric alone in case you run out of gas?(I dont think I’ve ever ran out of gas in a auto or pickup)but whats up with this green parking BS? Sounds like its about time for some of these clover agencys to have a ROF-Kevin

  5. Gas prices will go up….probably sooner than later.

    If you’re in that small group for whom a hybrid ” makes sense,” there probably never will be a better time to buy.

    The higher gas prices rise, the more sense it will make.

    Anyone got a crystal ball?

  6. My friend stole a “Hybrid” badge and stuck it on his new Grand Cherokee. He parks in those “Green Vehicle” parking spaces that the public school retards “thought” were a good idea. For a laugh, try telling the fucking retards that car exhaust is CO2 + Water…Which is plant food.

    • You forgot the best part. After telling them it’s CO2 and water, tell them which one is the stronger green house gas by a very large margin.

      Penn & Teller’s work plus that could have water declared as pollution.

  7. re: “And at the current $2 per gallon for regular unleaded, that $,1230 will buy 615 gallons of gasoline. Which works out to a bit more than 36 full tanks of fuel, or the equivalent of just over 18,000 miles of driving before the Camry would cost you more to operate than the Prius.”

    Well, no. Math fail.

    If you have a 30 MPG Camry, and a 45 MPG Prius, you’d have to drive 90 miles in the Prius to save one gallon of gas compared to the Camry. That is, after 90 miles of driving, the Camry has used 3 gallons of gas, the Prius 2 gallons.

    And, at least in Austin, gas is currently running around $1.70 a gallon. That’s about 700 gallons of gas. 700 X 90 = 63,000 miles or so to get to break even in a Prius — if you can get someone to loan you money at 0% interest rates. If the marginal cost for the last dollar borrowed is financed via a credit card at close to 20% interest, that means your marginal extra upfront cost of $1,230 will cost you $246 for the first year in interest — which is about the savings in gas. So, in this worst case scenario, you’d never recover the $1,230 in upfront costs.

    • And all that assumes that a Camry and a Prius are equivalent in roominess and power. I suspect that a Prius more closely resembles a Corolla in those respects — and a Corolla starts at $16,800 and gets a combined 36 MPG. Which means that it’s going to be more like a $7,000 price difference compared to a Prius, and you’ll have to drive 180 miles to save a gallon of gas in a Prius compared to a Corolla. Hmmm, you’d have to save about 4,000 gallons of gas to break even, times 180 miles of driving per gallon saved — about 720,000 miles to break even, if you can find someone to loan you money at 0% interest. Which you can’t. So the gas savings won’t even cover the extra interest each year.

      • The Prius is mid-sized; the Corolla’s a compact. Apples vs. oranges. The four cylinder Camry is only slightly less quick than the Prius. I’ve driven both and can vouch for this.

        A more “apples to apples” comparison would be Corolla vs. Prius C (this is the smaller version of the Prius, which IIRC starts around $18k).

        As you know, I’ve been very critical of hybrids. But for some people, they make sense. My mother-in-law, for example, could save a lot of money by driving a Prius – because she rarely drives farther than 20 miles away from her home and most of her driving is very low-speed/stop-and-go. Driven this way, a Prius can easily average in the mid-high 50s. Which is about 20 MPG better than the four cylinder Camry.

        Of course, if you do a lot of high-speed highway driving, then a hybrid (Prius or otherwise) is probably not a good choice – if you’re looking to save money overall.

        But if your driving is “hybrid friendly,” now might be a good time to shop – because dealers are under pressure to sell (and are having trouble selling hybrids at full mark-up, as a result of low gas prices).

    • Somewhere in the comments here I repeated my math on hybrid civic vs. regular civic. Apples to apples, straight up. It was somewhere in the 300,000-400,000 mile range where the hybrid premium was paid back and that was with gasoline well over 3.00/gal.

      A hybrid car has -two- drive trains. It’s not a choice to save money and probably never will be. Even plug in hybrids and electrics have to have their electricity at free or close to it and certainly no fuel taxes for the roads or discourage driving or any of the other reasons fuel taxes exist for automobiles.

  8. Be aware that the smaller the outer circumference of the tyre, the more revolutions (pun not intended) it requires to do the same distance, making for more wear. Although skinny tyres have less rolling resistance due to less rubber contacting the road, every rotation still creates the same wear regardless of tyre width.

    It’s also worth noting that the skinny tyre has reduced contact patch and therefore the same amount of weight is more concentrated on that smaller patch, increasing the wear ratio.

    Regardless any of the above, the most important thing for safety and tyre longevity is pressure. Most manufacturers have pressures marked on their stickers inside the door sill too low for safe or efficient running, but more for comfort.

    Since cars (excepting mid or rear engined) have most weight up front, even more when braking, tyre pressures there need to be increased. For a mid-sized sedan, 35 PSI front and 30 PSI rear works well, depending on the tyre profile.

    My little front wheel drive Pulsar, for example, is so heavy up front that I run 37 front and 27 rear pressures with 45 profile tyres. This maintains the optimal contact patch for the weight distribution. Anything else and either the back is too bumpy or the front far too spongy.

    • Good stuff, Rev!

      I ought to have qualified the tire point. A significant (usually) difference with the smaller/skinnier tires (generalizing here; as regards what’s typical in the U.S. as OEM fitment on new cars) is the compound. A typical 18 or 19 inch tire will be a softer compound/performance-sport type while the 15-16s are more all-season and designed to rack up high miles.

      • eric, then there’s the “rough” aspect of those skinny tires, esp. if the roads are not the smoothest. Compared to a car I’d drive, a Prius is a noisy little bastard too at highway speeds. While a few cars can still pound a dirt road and not suffer too much, not so with the little, skinny tire crowd no matter what the make. Those roads like I live on aren’t conducive to small cars or even cars for that matter. One of the biggies is wheelbase width. They won’t fit where pickups have rutted the road and that’s some extra wear and tear on them too. They are definitely “yuppie” cars.

        Per your idea I realize was a joke, but maybe a 3500 HD with a Hybrid emblem is the ticket……although I don’t have a clue how far I’d have to drive to find a “green” parking spot. No doubt Austin has them but like most Texans, I avoid Austin like the plague(of yankees, clovers, commies, socialists) it is.

        As an aside, a few years ago when breaking up Texas was on the burner, a group of you know who’s wanted to use a 30 mile radius around Austin and make it a state in it’s own right. The only people I knew that weren’t for that were old landowners who still had ranches in that circle(not many left, just sell it and buy twice or three times as much land elsewhere). Of course old time businesses are being taxed out of their base there so that’s not the big issue. It’s hard to be a competitive windmill business and pay Austin taxes.


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