DRIVE TIME


Hybrids Worth the Price

Mark Solheim

From a dollars-and-cents perspective, the decision to buy a hybrid is never simple.



When Kiplinger's looked at the costs versus benefits of buying a hybrid two years ago, we concluded that most drivers would see long-term savings only with the smallest, most fuel-efficient models -- namely, the Toyota Prius and Honda Civic Hybrid.

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But at that time, gas cost only $2.30 a gallon. Now that gas prices have hit the stratosphere, more hybrids make financial sense. But with some hybrid models, you won't even come close to getting back the premium you pay.

To reach that conclusion, we compared the five-year ownership costs of 13 hybrids with those of their gas-engine counterparts. Our math is based on actual transactions, rather than sticker prices, and assumes a 15% down payment, a five-year loan and 15,000 miles of driving a year -- 55% of those at city speeds. Vincentric supplied the data.

Besides sucking less gas, many hybrids save on taxes and fees because they qualify for a one-time tax credit, which we took into account. A factor that we couldn't include is a potential discount on your car insurance. Travelers, for example, offers a 10% discount for hybrids in most states.

Best and worst. At the top of the list for value is the 2008 Saturn Vue Hybrid, which is projected to cost $2,500 less over five years than the gas-engine Vue XE. The numbers also favor the Nissan Altima Hybrid ($2,100 less than the Altima S), the Lexus RX 400h ($1,100 less than the RX 350) and the Honda Civic Hybrid ($1,000 less than the Civic EX). The Altima Hybrid is sold in only eight states -- California, Connecticut, Maine, Massachusetts, New Jersey, New York, Rhode Island and Vermont.

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It's tough to justify buying a car at the bottom of the list. The Lexus LS 600h L costs $35,000 more in total costs than the LS 460 L, mainly because of its $32,000-higher sticker price. The Lexus GS 450h costs $16,900 more than the GS 350, and the Chevrolet Tahoe Hybrid costs $10,700 more than the Tahoe LT.

The middle group of hybrids has ownership costs that run from slightly to significantly higher. The Ford Escape Hybrid costs $200 more over five years than the Escape XLT four-cylinder; the Chevrolet Malibu Hybrid costs $400 more than the Malibu LT; and the Saturn Aura Hybrid costs $1,700 more than the Aura XE.

The Toyota Highlander Hybrid (which has four-wheel drive) will cost $2,200 more to drive than the Highlander base four-wheel-drive model; the Toyota Camry Hybrid will set you back $2,700 compared with the Camry LE.

You could still come out ahead with these in-between hybrids if gasoline prices rise. For example, with the Ford Escape Hybrid, you'd erase the price premium if gas were to average $4.50 a gallon.

What about the Toyota Prius? For many Americans, the white-hot hybrid symbolizes green driving. Many dealers have months-long waiting lists and are charging $1,000 to $1,500 more than the $23,135 sticker.

Compared with what? Even so, if you look at the total ownership cost over five years, the Toyota Prius ties the Honda Civic Hybrid for least expensive ($39,780). The Nissan Altima Hybrid ($40,730) is next cheapest, followed by the Chevy Malibu ($44,810), Toyota Camry ($45,140), Ford Escape ($45,860) and Saturn Vue ($46,120) hybrids.

But hybrids aren't the cheapest rides. A number of nonhybrid gas sippers cost less to own over five years. One of the best values is the Honda Fit, which costs $35,650 to operate over five years. The Nissan Versa costs $36,520. If you want more room, consider the Toyota Matrix, which is projected to cost $39,680 over five years.

From Kiplinger's Personal Finance magazine, October 2008


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