The costly secrets of hybrid cars

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Behold GMC’s hybrid, the K15 Sierra. This pickup truck scores a 3 on the EPA’s 0-to-10 emissions scale, with 0 being the worst. It gets a whopping 18 miles per gallon in combined city and highway driving. That compares with the 16 mpg attained by its non-hybrid sibling, the K1500 Sierra.

So what, exactly, is green or even fuel-efficient about this vehicle?

You might ask the same question about Chevrolet’s C15 Silverado hybrid (19 mpg, compared to the regular C1500’s 18). Even some of the new vehicles touted as significantly less gas-hungry than their peers still post mileage ratings that could be bested by a regular old Toyota Corolla with a headwind.

Meanwhile, drivers of cars that actually have impressive EPA mileage ratings complain that their real fuel economy is far less advertised.

A focus on performance

What’s going on here? Are car manufacturers perpetrating a scam on unsuspecting consumers?

 

Not quite, car experts say. Any car maker has to balance fuel efficiency with performance, said Bob Kurilko of car-shopping site Edmunds.com. With the latest generations of hybrids, manufacturers are simply leaning more toward the performance side of the scale.

The earliest incarnations — the Toyota Prius and the Honda Insight, for example — were stingy with gas, getting EPA ratings of around 60 mpg. But “they weren’t much fun to drive,” said Perry Stern, editor of MSN Autos.

“With the (hybrid Honda) Accord or the new Lexus RX, a buyer doesn’t have to make that compromise,” Stern said. “You get more power, and you get better fuel economy than other vehicles in the same class. It’s not going to save tons of money at the pump, but you’re not having to give up on fuel economy to get a more powerful vehicle.”

Hard to justify

The problem is that car manufacturers are charging substantially more for these new hybrids than for their gas-using counterparts. Though the car makers tout extra performance, the bigger sticker price can make it harder to justify the economics of buying a hybrid.

 

For example, the hybrid Accord gets a combined 32 mpg, compared to the regular Accord’s 24. But it also costs $3,300 more, Perry said.

Assuming you drive 15,000 miles a year and gas averages $2.50 a gallon (we can hope), you’d be saving $391 a year on fuel. That means it would take you about eight years to break even.

And, under the new energy law, hybrid vehicles that don’t achieve significantly better mileage won’t share in the generous tax credits available to those that do.

The Lexus RX 400h, a luxury hybrid, carries a sticker price about $10,000 higher than that of the RX 330, the regular version of the crossover SUV. The hybrid clocks 31 mpg in city driving, compared to the gas-powered’s 18 mpg.

“The Lexus story is that the new hybrid gets 13 mpg better than the standard V6 RX, but also gets 38 more horsepower,” Stern said.

Lexus is also trying to bridge the price gap by making standard some of the features that are optional in the gas version. But there’s still a pretty big difference in price tags.

There’s a smaller gap between the hybrid and gas versions of the Ford Escape. The all-wheel-drive hybrid costs about $28,000, compared to $26,000 for a gas version with similar performance.

The new hybrids

Car makers will introduce at least 15 new models over the next few years.

 
Hybrid cars      
Manufacturer Model Type ETA
Dodge Ram Hybrid Full-size Pickup 2005
Lexus RX 400h Mid-size SUV 2005
Mercury Mariner Hybrid Mid-size SUV 2005
Toyota Highlander Mid-size SUV 2005
Saturn VUE SUV 2006
Nissan Altima Hybrid Mid-size Car 2006
Chevrolet Equinox SUV 2007
Chevrolet Malibu Mid-size Car 2007
Chevrolet Tahoe (AHS II) SUV 2007
GMC Yukon Hybrid (AHS II) SUV 2007
Mazda Tribute Hybrid SUV 2007
Chevrolet Silverado Hybrid (AHS II) Full-size Pickup 2008
Ford Fusion Mid-size Car 2008
GMC Sierra Hybrid (AHS II) Full-size Pickup 2008
Mercury Milan Hybrid Mid-size Car 2008

Sources: Fueleconomy.gov, J.D. Power-LMC; Energy & Environmental Analysis (EEA); manufacturer Web sites.

 

Do they deliver on mileage?

Then there’s the issue of whether these cars actually get the mileage they claim. This is actually a pretty big deal with the vehicles that are the most fuel-efficient: the Prius and the Insight. Owners have been yowling for years that their mileage isn’t anything like the EPA’s numbers.

 

“I drove a Prius for a week and never saw 60 mpg,” Perry said. “I averaged around 42 mpg.”

Now, that kind of mileage should make any Hummer driver blush. But it’s not that much better than a fuel-efficient small sedan, like a Honda Civic. (The EPA clocks the Civic with Honda’s “Lean Burn” engine technology at 36 mpg city, 44 mpg highway.)

So while hybrids might not be a scam, they are pretty expensive for what you’re getting.

That’s largely because hybrids are still a bit of a novelty act. As more models are introduced in coming years and competition heats up, at least some of that premium for hybrid technology should evaporate, predicted auto writer Terry Kosdrosky of Crain’s Detroit Business.

In other words, if you’re thinking about a hybrid, consider waiting a few years.

Rolling forward

If you’re in the market for a car now, here are a few thoughts:

 

Consider all your alternatives. You don’t have to go hybrid to get better-than-average mileage — and you don’t have to stick to small cars, either. FuelEconomy.gov keeps a list of the most and least fuel-efficient vehicles in each class of cars. You might want to take a look at today’s diesel cars as well. The diesel versions of Volkswagen’s Beetle and its Jetta and Passat Wagons were named the most fuel-efficient in their class.

If you’re going to buy one of the “tax deduction” hybrids, get going. The waiting list for Priuses is six months long in many areas. Tax credits of up to $3,000 are available for cars delivered after Jan. 1, 2006 — but only to the first 60,000 vehicles each automaker sells.

Whether you buy hybrid or not, consider ways to reduce your fuel consumption. Those ways haven’t changed much since the energy crisis of the early 1970s:

  • Avoid jack-rabbit starts and stops; rapid acceleration wastes gas.

 

  • Keep your speed to 60 mph or less.
  • Reduce your trips by carpooling, combining errands, walking or biking.

 

  • Use public transportation.

 

  • Keep your tires properly inflated.

 

  • Replace clogged air filters.

 

  • Clean out your trunk (the more weight you carry, the worse your mileage)

 

Liz Pulliam Weston’s column appears every Monday and Thursday, exclusively on MSN Money. She also answers reader questions in the Your Money message board.

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