Buying a Hybrid Car: How Long Until it Saves You Any Money?

2016 Prius Four

2016 Toyota Prius | Source: Toyota

On paper, hybrids are great. You use electric motors to help move the car when it would be using the most gas, recharge the batteries when the engine is using the least gas, and reap massively improved fuel economy. Unlike a lot of ideas that look good on paper, in real life, hybrids usually do exactly what they’re intended to do. As Top Gear famously pointed out, if you drive a hybrid flat-out, it won’t be particularly fuel efficient, but in regular driving, most hybrids are significantly more economical than their gasoline-only versions.

For most people, the only drawback to hybrids is how much more it costs to buy them. Adding batteries and an electric motor to a car drives up the cost, usually by several thousands of dollars. Depending on how large the increases in both cost and fuel economy are, it’s easy to think that hybrids don’t exactly make financial sense. Sure, they may be great for people who want to look like they care about the environment, but do hybrids ever actually pay off?

While its available list doesn’t include every single hybrid currently on sale, FuelEconomy.gov has created an incredibly useful tool for figuring out exactly how long the extra cost of a hybrid will take to be paid back.

The site itself is fairly simple and straightforward. You select a vehicle from the list, and it brings up a comparison between the hybrid version of a car and the non-hybrid version of that car. You can easily see the difference in price, as well as the difference in combined fuel economy ratings, how much money you’ll save on gas with the hybrid, and how many years it will take for your yearly savings to exceed the added cost of buying the hybrid.

It also offers the option to personalize the settings so it can make sure its calculations are reflective of your current driving situation. Unfortunately, other factors like insurance, maintenance, and resale value aren’t included, so you can’t quite get the whole picture, but at the very least, you can get a rough idea of which hybrids will pay off the fastest.

Lincoln

2015 Lincoln MKZ Hybrid | Source: Lincoln

Looking through various comparisons, one of the first things that jumps out is that there are three hybrids that cost no more than their non-hybrid versions. The Lincoln MKZ is probably the most well known hybrid to be priced this way, but the Buick LaCrosse and Regal are a bit more surprising. Unless you’re extremely committed to not owning a hybrid, it only makes sense to go for the upgraded fuel economy. The MKZ, for example, jumps from 26 miles per gallon combined to 40 miles per gallon combined. That’s expected to save the average driver around $559 per year.

Another trend that emerges is that buying a comparably equipped hybrid is a lot more affordable if you’re already planning to buy a heavily-optioned version of the car. The 2015 Honda Accord EX, for example, should take 7.6 years to pay back the cost of the hybrid, while the Accord Touring will take much less time, paying itself off in just two years. The Ford Fusion is the same way, but oddly enough, the Toyota Camry is not.

There are also some cars listed that take longer than ten years to pay themselves back. The all-wheel-drive Toyota Highlander Limited takes 11.1 years, the Hyundai Sonata SE takes 13.8 years to pay itself back, and the all-wheel-drive Subaru XV Crosstrek Limited takes an immense 16.9 years. The Subaru’s huge discrepancy is a combination of a steep premium ($26,395 to the gas-only’s $21,595) and minimal fuel economy gains (34 highway 30 city, versus 34 highway and 26 city).

Finally, not all hybrids are created equally, and just because it’s a hybrid doesn’t necessarily mean it’s going to be incredibly fuel efficient. The Toyota Prius gets over 50 miles per gallon combined (nearly 60 in some trims), and the now-discontinued Honda Accord Hybrid gets 47 miles per gallon combined, which are figures people usually associate with hybrids. Several cars get less than 30 miles per gallon combined, though, like the Toyota Highlander. That doesn’t necessarily mean they’re bad cars. Their fuel economy just might not match the expectations people have of hybrids.

No matter which hybrid you’re interested in buying, it pays to test drive a few competitors, and it pays to do your research. Go into the hybrid-buying process knowing how much money you can reasonably expect to save in the long run, and even if you only buy the hybrid version to reduce how frequently you have to fill up, at least you won’t end up surprised with the results.

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