Another Hybrid Study Misses the Point: It's Not About Payback

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Pre-Production 2010 Toyota Prius in Orlando

Pre-Production 2010 Toyota Prius in Orlando

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Sometimes, you'd think that hybrid-electric vehicles were the most important development in the automotive world, if not the entire geopolitical sphere, in the last 15 years. They're not.

More than a decade after they launched into the U.S. market, their market share hovers just south of 3 percent. Globally, it's roughly 1 percent.

And by far the biggest portion of that total volume belongs to the three generations of the Toyota Prius, the world's first hybrid and the one that still represents more than one of every two hybrids on the planet. Its distinctive form has even earned the honor of its very own South Park episode.

But we get testy about the lack of context. Specifically, today's coverage of yet another study--this one by points out that buying the hybrid model doesn't save enough gasoline to cover the purchase premium over the non-hybrid model of that same car.

Especially with U.S. gasoline prices floating around the $2.70 per gallon mark.

The cars ranged from the Honda Civic Hybrid compact sedan to the GMC Yukon Hybrid full-size SUV, including the new and popular 2010 Ford Fusion Hybrid. Neither of the two dedicated hybrids sold in the U.S.--the Toyota Prius and the Honda Insight--were included.

The study covered both depreciation and operating costs.

Mercedes-Benz S 400 Hybrid

Mercedes-Benz S 400 Hybrid

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(Actually, a differing study showed that the 2010 Mercedes-Benz S 400 Hybrid is the sole hybrid that does save money, because it's the least expensive S-Class sedan sold here and it has the best gas mileage to boot. But hey, who's counting?)

Yep. Hybrids don't pay back. But then, HUMMERs aren't bought solely by people who need to ford rocky riverbeds to take little Jason and little Jennifer to soccer practice. And so forth.

The point is that people buy cars for all sorts of reasons, from the purely practical (number of seats, luggage capacity, fuel efficiency) to the not-very-well-understood psychographics of what you think your car says about you to others.

Which is, it turns out, the Number One reason that Prius owners bought their cars: to make a statement that they're green. That data comes from a study done at the University of Minnesota on purchase motivations.

The same motivations are likely to apply to purchase hybrid models of non-hybrid cars and trucks, though we'd be eager to see a study that looked at that question in a systematic way.

So the new study, covered by our colleagues at Wired, once again produces data to support a relatively well-known conclusion: The added cost of hybrid-electric gear--not to mention the premium trim that usual accompanies hybrid options on models also sold as gasoline cars--exceeds an owner's likely lifetime gasoline savings.

So what?

That's not why most people buy hybrids.

It is, however, why people like us end up having to write articles like this.


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Comments (8)
  1. If all car purchases were purely rational, we'd all be driving Dacia Logans and I'd be out of a job.

  2. Don't trash studies like this. It does two things:
    1. Educates the public. you fail to realize that the people who aren't on automotive sites every day just know what they are told about cars. A friend of mine bought a mazda and I swear at least 10% of the people who he ran into asked him if it had a rotary engine in it. People who know only one thing about mazda know they make rotary engines, but they dont know it doesnt go into every car they make. truth was it was a B2000 and he had to tell them it actually had a ford V6 in it. "what, didnt like the rotary so you pulled it out?"
    Therefore, the idiotic general public needs to be reminded that buying a hybrid will not save you money. don't buy a hybrid if you want to save money. It wont happen.
    2. It kicks the OEMs in the butt, and encourages them to refine the tech. Yes, it's new tech, so it isn't perfect. more incentive to make it better.

  3. Hmmm, John seems to be making nice with hybrids today, not sure what is up with that.
    Anyway, let me try to make the case that hybrids are the most important development in automobiles in the last 15 years.
    The basics of cars usually come down to numbers. Weight, top speed, 0-60 time, etc. Usually improvements in any one of these key measures are incremental. Perhaps 25% lower weight, or higher speed, or what have you.
    So it is a rare indeed when a key measurement of performance is 2X what it has been. The Prius hybrid system has done something like that the MPG of cars in the city seldom exceeds 25 mpg yet the Prius can do 51 mpg. This is basically 2X in performance.
    So here is the challenge, name some other key car performance metric that has improved by 2X in the last 15 years.

  4. Here is someone's list on the top 10 innovations in cars.
    Hybrid drivetrains are listed 10th (least important). However, if you look at the timeframe and consider the lasts 15 years, Hybrid drive trains are 2nd only to DVD players in cars. Hmmm DVD plays are cool, but I use the hybrid drive train all the time and the DVD player only when I am stuck in traffic. So I think the hybrid drive train wins the top innovation of the last 15 years.

  5. John,
    I'm not trashing hybrids by any means, but the point this survey is getting across to the public stands. Most people would go to hybrids to save money, which they wont. and there is still some debate about the manufacturing process and "well to wheel" / "cradle to grave" emissions of hybrids over conventional cars.
    I do take exception to your point of hybrid tech only being 15 years old and in that time doubling the fuel econ of cars. Electric traction drives, be it motors, generators, are older than the internal combustion engine, and even the electronic controllers that are used today have been around since the 70s.
    The idea of electric hybrid cars is important, but considering Porsche had an electric car in 1896, the technology is hardly new. Heck even toyota had the turbine/electric hybrid Crown in the 70s.
    The big point of all of this is that the technology isnt economical. Just like a pair of designer jeans, they only serve to make a statement (of which the validity is still in question due to the lifecycle emissions)

  6. I would be buying a hybrid. It isn't about saving money It is the right thing for society.
    It would be cheaper (in the immediate) to toss my human waste out the window. But we as a society don't do that we pay the extra money for a sewage system that depending on where you live either takes that away to a treatment plant or stores it in a septic tank.
    In many ways use of a hybrid or electric car vs an all gasoline car is similar.
    With current prices of gasoline and the price of vehicles, all gasoline cars are upfront directly cheaper to use. However when you look at the overall costs of gasoline use (the largest use of oil consumption in the USA) it becomes clear we must reduce our use.

  7. This is an excellent retort!! To add to this, the hybrid feature of a car is the only feature I know of that gives you some return on your money. No other accessory can say that. How about that 2000 dolar stereo system, any money back on that? How about those 400 dollar a piece tires, any return on those? How about LED headlights, any return on those? OK! I hope you get the picture! I like the idea of spending less on gas and just maby make a positive impat on the environment!!

  8. I am also sick and tired of people writing and talking about how hybrid owners will never get their "price premium" back!
    I bought my Prius because...
    1..It uses a hell of a lot less gas than 99.9% of cars on the road today which in turns means less money going overseas to countries that hate us, reducing my dependence on fossil fuels, reducing the amount of pollutants coming out of my tailpipe which will help in the effort to combat global warming, etc. etc.
    Also I don't have to worry about high gas prices. I always hear people bitching about the price of gas with their HUGE SUV's. Which they don't need because many of the drivers I see are moms driving around one or two kids!!

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