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Are Hybrids Worth the Cost?

When it comes to picking out a car, it can be a pretty tough choice. There are many different manufacturers, and many types that each one creates. Even assuming you know what you want (such as coupe, hatchback, convertible, etc.) there are still many choices. As of lately, we have been moving more and more towards a hybrid and electric car world, as they are starting to become viable options for driving on a regular basis. In fact, they are becoming so efficient that people are now trading in their normal gas based vehicles for new hybrids and electric cars. But when it really comes down to it, is the cost of this swap really worth it? Is it going to save money in the long run (or maybe even the short run)? This is what we are going to be looking at through this article. Please note that the goal here is not to push people to or away from hybrids and electric vehicles. It is simply here to be an informative look to help make better buying decisions from a financial standpoint. As such, we are really only going to be looking at the efficiency (in terms of miles per gallon) and the cost, rather than other factors that might affect the buying decision.

Comparing Electric to Hybrid or Gas Vehicles Cost Per Mile

A lot of people take the wrong approach to making these comparisons, and it can be a costly one. When we look at gas cars, we can easily deduce the cost per mile driven by just taking how many miles per gallon it gets and dividing that by the cost of a gallon of gas. Of course this number changes frequently, but we can make some generalizations. Generally, we will just take the averages of both numbers over a period of time and use that for the calculation. For example, if your car gets 30 miles per gallon and gas is $3 per gallon, we estimate that each mile costs $0.10. Keep in mind that we are completely ignoring things like maintenance and tires, but these are required on all vehicles regardless so they should not have an impact on the numbers.

Now, when we get to the electric vehicles things can get a bit more tricky. Instead of using gas, we are using electric. To work out these calculations you have to start by figuring out how much you pay for electricity. This number varies widely from free (solar, wind or water energy) to half a dollar per kilowatt. Your electric bill should have this information available for you. Once you have this price, you need to see how many kilowatts the battery in the vehicle you are looking at holds. Some will hold around six, others can hold much more than this. We estimate that the cost to charge the battery from empty to full would be (cost x kilowatts the battery holds). There is a bit more depth to this, in that charging batteries is not 100% efficient and therefore we are losing some energy along the way, but for the purpose of this high level view it should be perfectly fine. Now, once you have this number as well, you need to see how many miles the vehicle can go on a full charge (which will also contain some variance, so you can average that out as well). Then simply calculate the cost per mile by taking the cost for charging the battery and dividing by how many miles the vehicle should be able to travel.

Hybrid vehicles are treated like gas ones when we run these calculations, being that they run off gas. Plug in models would require a much more in depth view, and the calculations get more and more difficult for them due to all of the variables that are involved. As such, we will not cover those here, and instead will focus more on the hybrid and electric vehicles.

Maintenance

When we deal with maintenance, it is important to note that all vehicles have it in some form or another. Gas and hybrid vehicles will require oil changes, for example, that electric vehicles will not. On the other hand, electric vehicles require special batteries to allow them to drive. Because of this, I generally attach a similar “maintenance cost” to each of these, although they can also vary widely. If you plan to set aside $200 a month on one car, plan to do it on the others as well just to be on the safe side.

Revving Up Pricing

Alright, here is where we start to take a look at whether or not making a swap to a new car will really pay off. First of all, you need to take your current car's cost per mile. Then take the cost per mile of a hybrid (the Prius, for example, can run around 55 miles per gallon). At this point I really like to open spread sheets to help work out the math. You will want to set up the following blocks:

  • Price you can sell your car at
  • Price you can buy a hybrid at
  • Difference in above prices
  • Cost per mile of old car
  • Cost per mile of new car
  • Difference of cost per mile
  • Difference in car prices divided by cost per mile

The final box will end up showing about how many miles you have to drive in the new car to make up for making the swap. If you were planning to get a new car anyways, this may not be a huge deal. If you were not, however, you might be surprised at the numbers. Some people have found that changing cars would require 400k+ miles to pay off the difference, and others have had that number much lower.

If you want to take things a step further, you can also divide the number of miles you need to drive by the number you drive per day, week or month. This will tell how long (at least as an estimate) it will take for the price difference to pay off. If you find that it will take 20 years, for example, it probably does not make sense from a financial perspective. If you would have it paid off in a year, though, it might as you are then saving money past that point. Everyone's situation is different and therefore the way of analyzing this will be different.

Conclusion

The idea of doubling your gas mileage may seem like an awesome one, but if you are making the switch from a purely financial perspective you might want to evaluate it a bit deeper. Often times, you will find that getting a cheaper car with worse gas mileage will actually save you money over the life of the car. This is excluding the fact that your payments are also lower in the beginning, meaning that you have more money free to deal with other things you have to take care of. Of course, if you are already looking at new cars that are in a price range similar to the hybrid or electric vehicle you are checking out, it should be an easy decision. But if you are not already in the market, make sure you do the research before you make a purchase!

I think that the future of hybrids and electric vehicles is great. We have been moving more and more towards becoming efficient, and I think they will continue to progress at a pretty decent pace. What costs a lot right now, for example, will be cheaper down the road. As such, if you are really wanting to get in on these things, do some research every year (when the new vehicles are announced) and see what pops up. Although it may not make sense from a financial perspective with today's prices and efficiency, they very well could be next year!

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