Your Mileage (and Costs) May Vary on Hybrid Cars

Hybrid Car

Toyota Prius V Hybrid Car - Est. MPG 44/40

Whether you’re interested in reducing your carbon footprint or lowering your fuel costs, hybrid vehicles and their 50 mile-per-gallon efficiency claims may seem like a great solution.

Unfortunately, as Heather Peters of California discovered, the claims and the reality do not necessarily match up.

Ms. Peters took Honda to court recently when she found that her 2006 Honda Civic Hybrid consistently did not make 50 miles per gallon, despite the automaker’s advertising that it would in both city and highway driving.

Note: This and other MPG claims angered enough drivers that the EPA changed the parameters of how mileage is calculated for all vehicles, which is why you’ll see “old” and “new” mileage calculations for vehicles.

While Ms. Peters won her initial case, a higher court overturned the ruling on appeal.

What Ms. Peters and other enthusiastic hybrid buyers might not know is that there are many factors that can affect the true cost and efficiency of a high MPG vehicle. If you are considering purchasing a hybrid car, here is what you need to know ahead of time:

Your Mileage May Vary

Unless you are a dedicated car enthusiast, you probably don’t know anything about how automakers determine the mileage numbers that appear on dealership stickers and advertisements. Determining MPG is actually a long and complicated process, which involves both the car companies and the U.S. government.

The EPA provides automakers with average driving patterns for city and highway driving. The car manufacturers use that information to test their cars’ efficiency. Where it gets complicated is the fact that the automakers can (and do) engineer their cars to show the best possible MPG numbers for those patterns when they test them.

You probably realize that driving with a lead foot or with an itchy brake foot will affect your mileage. However, most people don’t realize that achieving the advertised mileage is pretty much impossible unless you are driving in the specific conditions that automotive engineers use on their tests.

It is even more difficult for Heather Peters and other hybrid drivers to achieve advertised mileage because of the nature of their cars. Hybrids have much more complicated drivetrains than standard vehicles. More complexity means that there is more that engineers can tweak in order to improve their numbers. So the deck is stacked against the average hybrid owner.

It’s important to note that there is nothing wrong with automakers engineering their cars to these tests. There really is no other efficient way of determining MPG—and as the judge ruled in the appeal (and in other court cases), Honda has not falsely advertised its car’s abilities. It simply maximized the car’s mileage given the set parameters.

The consumer needs to know that the “your mileage may vary” statement is absolutely true.

Production, Repair, and Maintenance Costs

Have you ever wondered why hybrid cars are so expensive? While some of the sticker price reflects the cost of engineering a new type of vehicle, much of it has to do with the expensive components that a standard engine does not have—like the battery.

Hybrid cars generally have either nickel metal hydride batteries, or lithium ion batteries. Not only is it relatively expensive and difficult to mine the metals needed for these batteries, but the necessity of transporting the raw materials to the plant where the batteries are made, and then transporting the finished batteries to the car manufacturing plant, all add to the cost—both financial and environmental.

Standard engines, on the other hand, are mostly made of steel and aluminum, which are pretty ubiquitous and cheaper to fabricate or mine. Since a hybrid car has a standard engine, an electric motor, and a battery, less material needs to be mined, processed, and transported from place to place when creating standard cars.

That is part of the reason why you will pay a premium when you buy a hybrid—which will lower your potential financial savings on gas. Add to that the fact that hybrid batteries will not last the entire life of the car and are expensive to replace, and that further lowers your operational cost savings.

Finally, the more systems and complexity that you have on a car, the more that you have to maintain, and the more there is that could go wrong. Owning a hybrid car will cost you more money in maintenance, simply because it is a more complex piece of engineering.

The Best Efficiency for the Money

If you are concerned about MPG and your environmental footprint, your best bet is to purchase an efficient four-door sedan.

While compact and sub-compact cars may have the most efficient engines and the lowest weight you can buy—which means they are going to be the best gas-sippers in city driving—but their shape often means that they have worse aerodynamics for highway driving.

Their increased drag at high speeds means their mileage suffers. If you’re a typical driver who needs to do both city and highway driving, a four-door sedan is the most efficient choice available.

Even if you’re not in the market for a new vehicle, you can still improve your efficiency. Start at the website www.fueleconomy.gov. This site will allow you to research the expected mileage of any car, and will then offer suggestions for maximizing your MPG.

When To Buy a Hybrid

Considering all of these factors, one might wonder why hybrids are so popular. But these are all just facts—they don’t take into account the feelings behind major purchases.

Hybrid cars offer their owners a social and psychological benefit beyond the dollars and cents of MPG. It feels good to make such a large and public statement about one’s commitment to the environment or energy conservation.

If you want to purchase a hybrid, remember that you are buying with good intentions. Purchasing a hybrid helps pay the engineers who are looking for alternatives to fossil fuels and reduces your gas consumption.

But know that your purchase will not end the energy crisis—or necessarily save you in operational costs.

Image by Robert Scoble

Last Edited: May 15, 2012 @ 3:58 pmThe content of ptmoney.com is for general information purposes only and does not constitute professional advice. Visitors to ptmoney.com should not act upon the content or information without first seeking appropriate professional advice. In accordance with the latest FTC guidelines, we declare that we have a financial relationship with every company mentioned on this site.
About Emily Guy Birken

Emily Guy Birken is a former English teacher and respected personal finance blogger. She lives in Milwaukee, Wisconsin with her engineer husband and two high-energy little boys. She has written two books: The Five Years Before You Retire and Choose Your Retirement. Emily's thoughts on parenting and life in general are found at The SAHMnambulist.

Comments

  1. Eric J. Nisall - DollarVersity says:

    I just did a bunch of research for a similar article a week ago.  It’s funny how they don’t tell you certain thing like it is the manufacturers that run the tests, the fact that the government only tests about 15% of the manufacturer-submitted MPG ratings, or that the ratings are based on pre-production models.  Then you have the ads which use the highest tested result as the key selling point.  
     
    So many factors go into the result that people will see on individual levels–driving habits, location/weather, accessories, road conditions, traffic, etc.–that it is really quite difficult to come up with a “standard” for testing and reporting results in a manner that accurately can apply to the majority.

  2. Jon Bufkin says:

    We got our Escape Hybrid used for 40% of KBB so it was a great deal for us. On the other hand, the repairs cost more because local mechanics are afraid to touch it and that only leaves the Ford dealer$hip. Also, the little proprietary hybrid parts are freakin’ expensive if you have to replace them. I wouldn’t buy another hybrid unless I got a similar deal.

  3. PaulMiceli says:

    Jon, how were you able to find such a deal? Did you mean 40% of the MSRP? Or 40% of the blue book on the car at the time you bought it?

  4. Psychological boosts aside, I think an important criteria is customer happiness.  Over the last three decades we’ve owned Fords, Mazdas, Plymouths, Hondas, Nissans, and even a Yugo.  They’ve all had their strengths & weaknesses, and not even the Yugo topped 40 mpg.  Yet the Prius has been so much more fun to drive that we now own two of them.  I’d have no problem buying a 2004-09 model off Craigslist, even if it’s pushing 100K miles.    
     
    I’m especially happy to own a car that doesn’t use a starter motor or an alternator.  No fuss with timing belts.  Long-life spark plugs.  Long-life brakes.  Long-life coolant.  Almost zero for repairs or maintenance.  Being able to carry a 10’6″ longboard inside the car.  On Oahu’s highways we routinely get 50-55 mpg.  Stop & go traffic is 60 mpg, occasionally higher.
     
    A Prius is also a great “student driver” vehicle, and I keenly appreciate how the regenerative braking has saved the car’s brakepads from our teen driver.  Even the paddle shifter keeps the newbie from making dumb moves…