Hybrids: Buy the ones that save money, not just gas

Hand putting red car in white piggy bank

If unpredictable gas prices have you thinking about a fuel-sipping hybrid, the Honda Civic and Toyota Prius are the two we recommend.

Of all the hybrids on the road, they're the only ones that make dollars-and-cents sense.

We know that many hybrid buyers don't mind paying extra to pollute less.

But most of us shopping for a new car must ask the tough question: At what point is a hybrid car's higher purchase price offset by savings in fuel and taxes?

Various automotive and consumer groups have tackled the question, and come up a rough consensus: Over the first five years, you'll pay more to drive most hybrids, sometimes significantly more.

Vincentric, a respected automotive financial analysis firm in Bloomfield Hills, Mich., did one of the most recent analyses earlier this year, matching hybrid models to their closest all-gas equivalent in model lines.

It took into account purchase price, depreciation, fuel savings and the federal tax credit that helps offset the hybrids' higher price.

The overall money-saver was the Prius -- at least as it compared to the mid-sized Camry LE sedan. While the Prius cost $2,485 more to buy, Vincentric calculated that it would cost $5,384 less to own and operate, giving it a $2,899 advantage.

However, the study noted, when the Prius was compared to the smaller, Toyota Corolla, the five-year costs were nearly identical, with the Prius costing $244 more over five years.

Perhaps the closest model-to-model comparison was between the Honda Civic's hybrid version and the Civic EX. There, the five-year cost difference was $865, in favor of the hybrid.

When you make similar comparisons for larger cars, such as the Honda Accord and Lexus luxury hybrids, or any of the sport-utility hybrids such as the Ford Escape and Toyota Highlander, the numbers tilt far in the other direction, in favor of the all-gas counterparts.

They ranged from $2,430, the additional cost of owning the Ford Escape hybrid over five years, to a whopping $8,030, the difference between the Lexus RX400h and the RX330 models.

Dave Wurster, Vincentric's president, said the imbalance was caused mostly by the higher initial price; the difference between the two Escape models was $7,163 alone. All the hybrid models offered significant fuel-cost savings, but even with gas at $3 a gallon, it couldn't begin to make up the difference in purchase price.

That's pretty surprising when you consider that virtually all hybrids qualify for a government tax credit -- $1,950 for a four-wheel drive Escape.

"To make them a smart economic choice, (the manufacturers) are really going to have to work on the cost," said Wurster.

Now Bradley Berman, the publisher of hybridcars.com, points out there's more to owning a hybrid than mere money, that the cars are as much a lifestyle statement than a mode of transportation.

"Do the magazines do cost analyses of a Hummer over another SUV?" he asks. "No, because we recognize that people choose cars for lots of reasons that have nothing to do with what they cost. Our cars are like big metal clothing that says who we are."

Hybrid buyers, he says, are far more likely to value their cars' environmental impact, and don't mind paying extra for less of it: "Do you believe that what you do as an individual has a greater impact on society at large? Do you think that what you do matters? Once you do, you think what's the point of trying to add up all the maintenance costs? This is important."

Dave Farrell agrees. He never considered price when he bought a Prius.

Two years later Farrell says, "I love this car. It's surprisingly roomy. It gets me on the freeway, no problem. And I average close to 50 miles per gallon. It literally makes me feel better. It's not a solution (to environmental problems). But it's a step in the right direction."

Ok, but if you can buy a hybrid that gives the satisfaction of doing the right thing and makes financial sense, why not do it?

Maybe that's one of the reasons why the Prius and Civic are far and away the best-selling hybrids?

Of course you should test drive both and see which one you like the best. Edmonds.com calls the Prius "a legitimate family sedan that offers everything you would expect from a Toyota car -- like solid build quality and refinement -- and a few things you don't -- like a low base price" about $21,000. Consumer Reports says its "reliability is outstanding."

Automobile magazine found "the Civic feels more coherent than the Prius, with superior body control and a better ride.'' Prices start at $22,150.

So buying one seems to make cents, we mean sense, to us.