Hybrids' Surprising Problem: So-So MPG

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Hybrid Car Toyota CamryThe soaring price of gas in recent years has made hybrid cars more attractive with each trip to the pump. Their promises of improved fuel economy, lower environmental impact, and good value are hard to resist.

But before you drive a hybrid off the lot expecting it to change the world -- or at least soften the blow to your gas budget -- consider new findings from the Union of Concerned Scientists. The organization found that many hybrid models don't save consumers as much money or fuel as they might expect.

Engine Power versus Pump Prices

It's important to understand what a vehicle's hybrid engine will really do for you. Some will deliver strong fuel efficiency. But others apply the new technology toward boosting the engine's power, thereby delivering less improvement in fuel economy and environmental benefit.

For fuel economy, the Toyota (TM) Prius -- the best-selling hybrid by far -- tops the list, with a combined highway/city rating of 50 miles per gallon. Next up are the Honda (HMC) Civic Hybrid and the Honda Insight, with 41 mpg each, followed by the Ford (F) Fusion Hybrid and Hyundai Sonata Hybrid, with 39 and 37, respectively. (Check out HybridCenter.org's hybrid scorecard to see how other vehicles measure up.)

The Nissan Altima Hybrid and Toyota Camry Hybrid, in comparison, both registered 33 mpg on highways. That's close to what I get with my trusty old non-hybrid Volkswagen.

That said, getting even 33 miles per gallon overall is a significant improvement over many conventional vehicles these days, though 50 mpg obviously looks more compelling. However, in the future, even the Prius may look like a gas-guzzler. Environmental advocates are urging the government to implement stronger fuel economy standards of at least 60 mpg for cars coming out in 2017 and later.

Hold Your Breath Around This Hybrid

Results also vary widely when measuring vehicle smog and its contributions to global warming.

If you buy a Volkswagen Touareg Hybrid thinking you're doing the environment a big favor, think again. It sits at the bottom of the non-luxury vehicle list, scoring a mere 3.0 out of 10 -- and gets just 21 mpg in the process. The Touareg Hybrid emits not even 10% less global warming-related pollution when compared to its conventional counterpart.

Again, the Prius tops this list, with a score of 9.2, generating about 40% less smoggy stuff than a regular car in its size and class. It's followed by Honda's Civic Hybrid and Insight, with scores of 7.2 and 6.5.

Get Ready to Shell Out for "Features"

Lastly, the Union of Concerned Scientists looked at hybrids' value. After all, who wants to spend more than is reasonable for a set of wheels? Some hybrids' manufacturers pack them with "forced features" that you might otherwise opt to forego, but which you'll end up paying for instead.

The non-luxury hybrid vehicles deemed to represent "very good" values include the Prius, the Honda Civic Hybrid, the Ford Fusion Hybrid, and the Honda CR-Z. Six models were rated "poor," and the Chevy Silverado Hybrid 2WD and Volkswagen Touareg Hybrid were rated "very poor."

The only vehicles rated as "superior" were luxury vehicles: the Lexus CT 200h, the Lincoln MKZ Hybrid, and the Mercedes-Benz S400 Hybrid.

The Other Costs of Hybrid Ownership to Consider

Compelling fuel economy and environmental impact are only part of the car-buying equation, whether or not you're looking at a hybrid.

A car's total cost of ownership includes financing, fuel, repairs, maintenance, and insurance. According to Edmunds.com, the 2011 Prius will cost a Washington, D.C. driver $42,219, compared with $35,841 for the Honda Civic Hybrid and $37,094 for a conventional Toyota Matrix.

You should also consider the "payback" period -- the time it will take for your fuel savings to make up for the price premium of your hybrid over its conventional counterpart. According to Edmunds.com, for the Prius it's less than a year; for the Nissan Altima Hybrid, more than a decade.

Even for a supposedly "green" car, that's a long time to wait to get your greenbacks back.

Longtime Motley Fool contributor Selena Maranjian holds no position in any company mentioned. Click here to see her holdings and a short bio. The Motley Fool owns shares of Ford





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72 Comments

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kent05r

Lithium causes cancer, New Hybrids are cancer cans on wheels. The facts no one will share. A total disaster for the current administration. Cancer Cars for sale, Obama Cars for sale. Everywhere but in America. Two years late and produced with 3.4 trillion tax dollars in China. BYD Auto, hong kong exchange stock number 1211. Warren Buffet and the girls. Used our tax dollars and now have a junk product. Obama how did this happen? Must be Bushes fault.

July 15 2011 at 8:36 AM Report abuse rate up rate down Reply
frdntfarm

I have an 09 Highlander Hybrid with 28,000 miles and it is all about how you drive. If you are in a rush and need to make good time and drive with the flow of traffic in the left lane, then I get 23-24 mpg. If I set the cruise control around 55 on the highway then I have gotten as much as 34 mpg. I do like having the choice and the vehicle has more than enough horsepower. Who really knows how high gas might go and the higher it goes, the greater the payback.

July 15 2011 at 8:32 AM Report abuse -1 rate up rate down Reply
1 reply to frdntfarm's comment
tmachine2

More people with foreign cars, and we wonder why our country is headed for economic peril.

July 18 2011 at 10:27 AM Report abuse +1 rate up rate down Reply
Tom

We have an 05 Prius and other than 2 sets of tires, have not had to spend anything for repairs, even brakes are good at 97450 miles. Best "investment" we ever made as far as ROI, I don't care how you count, the numbers do not lie.
All drivers could do much better if they would quit drivimg the gas all the way to the stop sign/light and watch the signal ahead and adjust speed accordingly as most signals run a 20 to 30 second cycle in this area. I notice some fuel gets better mileage and suspect suppliers are tinkering with octane to boost their profit. Also I thought "price fixing" was against the law? So how does the price change at every station in town at a given hour?

July 15 2011 at 8:28 AM Report abuse -1 rate up rate down Reply
1 reply to Tom's comment
tmachine2

wait till you have to replace a transmission and the lithium ion pack, which are $6,700 a crack, which are known to happen over 70,000 miles. Also, Priuses are known for the electronic dashboards to go bad over 100,000 miles.

July 18 2011 at 10:29 AM Report abuse +1 rate up rate down Reply
tmklem1

I love my hybrid Toyota Highlander, I went from a Dodge Durango 9-11 MPG, to 24-26 MPG. Still has 4 wheel drive and can seat 7. Have had it for 4-5 years with about 80,000 miles now with no problems. I like sitting at a stoplight and not spewing out toxic fumes. I totally do not agree with this article. I also am not that thrilled with the new "Huffpost" on AOL.

July 15 2011 at 7:53 AM Report abuse -1 rate up rate down Reply
1 reply to tmklem1's comment
tmachine2

The new Durango gets that kind of gas mileage now if you keep up with car companies.

July 18 2011 at 10:37 AM Report abuse +1 rate up rate down Reply
usapaydirt

VW is on the right path , clean turbo diesel , 40+ mpg simple design , no sacrifice on performance. Hybrids are overly complicated and unnessesarly expensive, the thought anything malfunctioning on a hybrid ,scares one

July 15 2011 at 7:47 AM Report abuse -1 rate up rate down Reply
1 reply to usapaydirt's comment
tmachine2

Chevy is going to use clean diesel in their Cruze models, which will get 50 mpg's. You can get a Chevy Cruze ECO that gets 42 MPG's on the HWY, which is the same gas mileage as the VW right now. The VW is behind the 8 ball.

July 18 2011 at 10:31 AM Report abuse rate up rate down Reply
Gary Krause

The biggest concern with the hybrid vehicles is with the cost of repairs. As with regular cars, automotive designers should build vehicles that can more readily be repaired by replacing easily accessible modular components. Also simple diagnostic software should come with every vehicle sold, so that the owner can troubleshoot malfunctions.

Gary Krause
Cherry Hill and Lawnside NJ
retired USCG

July 15 2011 at 7:43 AM Report abuse +1 rate up rate down Reply
Koz

I did the numbers one day and found that a standard gas powered car would cost .20 cents a mile over the first 50,000 miles, a Nissan Leaf which is all electric will cost .40cents a mile for the same milage. This includes cost of vehicle, fuel for the gas and vehicle, premium frothe leaf that you pay, extra cost for the quick charging system, battery replacement and disposal and power usage from the grid.
What was not taking into account was the fact that I you would need to have two vehicles because the Leaf will only get to back and forth to work. It won't tow your boat, or take you to grand mas on Sunday.
I'll stick with my gas engine.

July 15 2011 at 7:34 AM Report abuse +1 rate up rate down Reply
1 reply to Koz's comment
tmachine2

You know people will buy that Leaf in California and run out of charge in heavy traffic after using their A/C. If they were smart, they'd go with the Volt, which has a back up gasoline generator.

July 18 2011 at 10:34 AM Report abuse +1 rate up rate down Reply
maloontransllc

This article is most likely the result of big oils influence. Before my wife bought the Prius she was spending 650 per month in gas had a car payment on her suburu of 440. The prius came in at 452 per month. She now spends 150.00 per month on gas. So there is no savings? give me a break.

July 15 2011 at 6:51 AM Report abuse +1 rate up rate down Reply
1 reply to maloontransllc's comment
tmachine2

Finally someone who speaks the truth...

July 18 2011 at 10:35 AM Report abuse +1 rate up rate down Reply
Mark Davidsaver

In general hybrids DO get better mileage. But the added cost of the hybrid might eat up that savings. The cars section of http://www.yourmoneypage.com contains a side-by-side comparison of many hybrids, electrics and regular fuel cars. Including tax credit it shows that electrics (surprisingly) look very good.

July 15 2011 at 6:08 AM Report abuse rate up rate down Reply
ckellett3

WHY??? are we not getting mileage more like 80 MPG??? Isuzu and Volkswagon had a car in 1981 that got 50MPG!

July 15 2011 at 6:06 AM Report abuse -1 rate up rate down Reply
1 reply to ckellett3's comment
tmachine2

I was a teenager in 1981, and I don't remember any car that got that kind of gas mileage. What are you people smoking?

July 18 2011 at 10:36 AM Report abuse +1 rate up rate down Reply