Hybrid car not always best buy

Your Money

August 20, 2006|By CAROLYN BIGDA | CAROLYN BIGDA,TRIBUNE MEDIA SERVICES

There are a lot of attributes to consider in a new car: the color, the engine, the brake system and something that's topping just about everyone's list - fuel efficiency.

In fact, with gas prices averaging roughly $3, according to the American Automobile Association (compared to $2.37 a year ago and just a few cents shy of the record high set last fall), you might be tempted to base your search entirely on the number listed next to miles per gallon.

Naturally, that would make hybrid vehicles, which rely on electricity stored in a battery for some of their power, a first choice. The Toyota Prius got 44 mpg overall in a Consumer Reports fuel-economy test in June. Within the sedan category, the best non-hybrids offered only 24 mpg.

But as research and stories have pointed out recently, when you consider all costs - not just the price of refueling - hybrids might not always be the best deal.

"Buyers are thinking a lot about fuel efficiency these days," said Jeannine Fallon, a representative for Edmunds.com, an online automotive source. "But despite gas prices, you still have to ask, `What am I going to use this car for?'"

To answer that question, first-time buyers should keep these points in mind:

How much you can afford?

Hybrids will lower your bill at the pump. But, at purchase time, you could spend thousands more, especially if your alternative is a low-cost compact car.

The list price for the popular Prius, for instance, is $21,725. Meanwhile, the Toyota Scion xA, which gets 30 mpg, according to Consumer Reports, starts at $13,320.

Hybrid buyers get a tax credit (as much as $3,150 for the Prius, for example) to alleviate the sticker cost. But the full credit is only available before the manufacturer sells 60,000 hybrids, after which the tax break begins to phase out.

Toyota has already hit the mark, leaving buyers through Sept. 30 to get the full credit. (For more details, go to www.hybridcars.com.) If you were planning to buy an economy car, it might take years of fewer trips to the gas station to justify the higher purchase price.

"But if you're buying a $23,000 car anyway," said Gabriel Shenhar, senior auto test engineer and special publication program manager for Consumer Reports, "then you don't have to wait for the payback."

You have to shop around

Even if a hybrid is within your budget, you can't ignore your car-buying senses. "You should do your research and look at what it costs to own that car, including things such as taxes and fees, depreciation and insurance," said Edmunds.com's Fallon.

To get an idea of what the ownership costs will be, check out the "True Cost to Own" tool on Edmunds' Web site (www.edmunds.com/advice).

Also, don't assume that the hybrid version of a model always will be the smarter option.

The hybrid Honda Accord gets 25 mpg., according to the Consumer Reports study, and costs $30,990. The Honda Accord EX (4 cylinder) was nearly as fuel-efficient, at 24 mpg, but will set you back only $23,350. Also, keep in mind that buying a hybrid sport-utility vehicle might not be the best solution if you want both space and fuel efficiency.

"Think about how often you really need that space," Fallon said. "If you're only carting around friends or a bike occasionally, then you're better off getting a smaller car for the everyday commute and renting a bigger car only when you need it."

Thinking green

Dollars are not the only green item that might influence your decision. Hybrids often have lower emission levels than other vehicles in the same category. To see for yourself, go to www.fueleconomy.gov/feg/best/rating.shtm l.

yourmoney@tribune.com

Carolyn Bigda writes for Tribune Media services.

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