22 August 2013

Why hybrids are dying: Gas engines are good enough on mpg, plug-ins are excellent

The mystique of electrics and plug-ins

If the hybrid doesn’t always have a clear cost-benefit edge over gas engine cars (and Toyota might not concede that point), the combination of electrics and plug-ins have increasing appeal, today to followers of the leading edge, tomorrow to the mainstream. The likely buyer for a battery electric vehicle (BEV) is an urban dweller in a megacity, which in the US centers on New York. They’re small and have all the range you could possibly want inside the city limits. Head out of Manhattan and you won’t go far since range tops out at 75-100 miles. So you rent a gas-engine car for the weekend in Litchfield County, perhaps even from the dealer where you got your EV. You can leave the car at the dealership or use an app such as Relay Rides to rent out your electric car while you’re away.

The plug-in hybrid has more technical complexity, cost, and upside potential. The battery pack adds $10,000-$20,000 to the price of the vehicle, meaning the cheapest plug-in sells for about $40,000. But it has the ability to go 25-40 miles on battery power before the combustion engine fires up. It can be recharged overnight at home, or in a couple of hours using a 220-volt charger. Driving 30 miles on electricity supplied by the power company costs less than half what it costs using gasoline or diesel. Many users find they only need to buy gasoline once or twice a month.

With a plug-in, you never worry about running out of battery power. But you have to constantly think about how much you can haul. The Volt has a smallish back seat and trunk, and the battery pack takes up room. It seats four but if you go on a weekend trip, you’ll have to pack light or leave two people behind.

What to choose

If you’re driving a lot of city miles, look at a hybrid. They’re at their best in stop-and-go driving. But do the calculations on payback first. Drive 12,000 miles in a 40 mpg (combined average) hybrid vs. 30 mpg in an efficient sedan, the hybrid saves $350 a year — so you’d make back a $2,500 hybrid premium in seven years. If the premium is $4,000, the payback is 11 years. But if you’re in a Toyota Prius that gets 50 mpg combined (it does), all of a sudden your payback drops to 4 years and 7 years. The Prius sedan is one vehicle where the payback almost always falls within a reasonable time, mostly because of its high mileage in both city (51 mpg) and highway (48 mpg) driving. The other no-brainer is the Lincoln MKZ. Both the regular and hybrid MKZs start at $36,000.

If you’re driving exclusively city miles, consider an electric vehicle. If you’re driving a lot of highway miles, then a diesel comes into its element. If you just want great fuel economy but you’re not driving a lot — so you don’t approach the hybrid payback — then a car with a high-efficiency gas engine is worth considering. Don’t sweat minor mpg differences. Hyundai is in hot water because it overstated fuel efficiency and three of its cars can’t get the claimed 40 mpg highway. For the popular Elantra, it’s now 38 mpg. The difference is about $50 a year.


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