Columnist: Should you purchase a hybrid?

Paul A. Eisenstein

Should you buy a hybrid? Like millions of American motorists, frustrated by the almost daily run-up in fuel prices, you’ve undoubtedly been asking yourself that question. 

Sure, the idea of getting 30, 40, even 50 mpg might seem appealing, and its driving record numbers of shoppers to switch to products like the Toyota Prius, Honda Civic Hybrid and Ford Escape Hybrid – which are now in seriously short supply.

But before you head for the showroom, there are some serious issues to consider.

• Is the right hybrid available for you? Is there an offering in the right segment of the market?

• What are the reasons behind your interest in hybrids? Are you simply looking to save money on fuel? Are you hoping to be a better friend to the Earth?

• Does a hybrid make sense considering the way you drive?

•  Then look at the dollars and cents, the premium you’re likely to pay for a hybrid product, versus the savings on fuel.

While new hybrid-electric vehicles, or HEVs, are entering the market each year, there are plenty of gaps, segments where only conventional powertrains are offered. Don’t compromise comfort or functionality without giving it serious thought.

If your primary motivation is saving money, do your homework: Consider the premium you might pay – some hybrid models cost as much as $6,000 more than conventionally powered vehicles, and unless you do most of your driving in stop-and-go traffic, it could take years, even a decade, to recover that added cost. Generally, hybrids save little to no fuel on the open highway.

On the other hand, if you want to make an environmental statement – or live in a state with other benefits, such as tax credits and commuter lane access – money alone isn’t everything.

One other financial consideration: If you owe a fair bit on the car you’re driving, be sure you won’t wind up “upside down,” owing more to pay off your loan than you’d save driving a high-mileage hybrid.

Every time fuel prices go up, the hybrid equation improves, but they still aren’t for everyone. Do your homework to make sure that for you, they deliver the right equation of dollars and sense.

Paul A. Eisenstein is  an award-winning journalist who has spent more than 30 years covering the  global auto industry.  His work appears in a wide range of publications  worldwide, and he is a frequent broadcast commentator on subjects  automotive.