For me, the decision to buy a hybrid car or not depends on two key issues. First, will the savings generated through better gas mileage offset the higher price of the hybrid car? And second, is the hybrid car better for the environment than a non-hybrid car?
When I last needed a new car, I decided to buy a Toyota Camry hybrid. Before making the purchase, I did lots of research about brands, models, and prices of new cars. Although I began the process thinking that I really wanted a four-wheel drive vehicle, in the end I went for a car with high gas mileage. Years ago I owned a four cylinder 1991 Camry that averaged 28 miles to the gallon of gas. I was disappointed to learn that over twenty years later, the Camry (and most other four cylinder mid-sized sedans) still averaged about 28 miles to the gallon. So with the exception of hybrids and possibly the clean diesels that Volkswagen now sells, gas mileage has not improved much (if at all) in the mass car market. So, with an advertised 40 mpg city and 38 mpg highway, I decided to buy the Camry hybrid.
In general, the Camry hybrid is a fast and responsive auto that out performs the standard four cylinder Camry and the Prius hybrid. To get similar performance in a non-hybrid, I would have had to purchase a six cylinder car. In the Toyota line I paid about $3,000 more for the hybrid than I would have paid for the standard four cylinder. A six cylinder Camry would have cost about the same as the hybrid, but with less miles per gallon of gasoline than the standard four cylinder version.
My first year of ownership ended at the end of May, 2013. During that year, I drove the Camry a total of 19,000 miles, of which I estimate that 60 percent were highway miles. My average mileage was 39.2 miles per gallon. I found that the best gas mileage was achieved when outside temperatures were moderate, when neither the heater nor air-conditioning was needed. Under those conditions, I routinely got 45 to 50 miles per gallon. Cold weather (and we have plenty of it in Wisconsin) drove the mileage down to 35 or 36 miles per gallon. Hot summer weather with air-conditioning averaged right at 40 or 41 miles per gallon.
How fast is the payback in better gas mileage over a comparably equipped standard four cylinder auto? The answer, of course, depends upon the price of gasoline and real world driving conditions where you live. In my case I estimate that the price of regular gasoline in Wisconsin for the past year was $3.70 per gallon. Therefore, at 39.2 miles to the gallon, I spent $1,793 for gas. Estimating an average of 28 miles per gallon, the standard four cylinder hybrid Camry would consume $2,511 of gasoline. Thus, other things being equal, the standard four cylinder Camry costs $718 more per year to operate than the hybrid model. Payback for the hybrid purchase, therefore, is $3000/$718 or 4.18 years.
I’m guessing that most people don’t drive as much as I do. If you drive, say, 15,000 miles, then the payback period is 5.2 years. So, it is difficult to build a solid case for purchasing a Camry Hybrid based solely on economic criteria unless you want to keep the car for more than five years. Even then, there are several unknowns that cloud the picture. For example, what is the market value of a used hybrid car? Or, how long do hybrid batteries really last?
If a strong case cannot be made for the hybrid car on economic grounds, what about the environmental advantage? The answer to this question is more complex than one might suppose. In 2007 a report issued by CNW Marketing Research, Inc, claimed that the energy expenditure for the life cycle of a Toyota Prius was greater than that of a Hummer H3. Entitled, “Dust to Dust: The Energy Cost of New Vehicles from Concept to Disposal” this report has been largely discredited. As recently as last year, however, The Guardian reported that large scale ecological damage has occurred in China due to the lax oversight of the mining of rare earth minerals. Rare earths are used in the production of hybrid vehicle batteries. In response, the Chinese government has promised a cleanup of the rare earth mining industry. These reports should should encourage us to look beyond gasoline consumption to production issues in assessing the environmental impact of hybrid vehicles. Several Negative Environmental Impacts of Hybrid Vehicles are detailed at the Love to Know Green Living Web site and a lengthy discussion of hybrid vehicle production pollution vs. hybrid benefits can be found at the How Stuff Works Web site.
On balance, the environmental impact of hybrid automobiles appears positive, and we can be cautiously optimistic that the environmental damage associated with their production will not offset their benefit in the reduction of greenhouse gases.
Should you buy a hybrid car? My assessment is that if you do, the environment will benefit. For your pocketbook, however, it’s a wash.