• Apr 22, 2008


Hybrids help you save gas at the pump, this is something we all know. We also know why burning less gasoline is good: fewer greenhouse gases are emitted to the atmosphere, it reduces our dependence on foreign oil and we spend less money at the pump. However, there is always the question about what is the overall impact of using a hybrid versus using a non-hybrid version. There are currently 17 hybrid models available in the U. S. market and all but one have a corresponding non-hybrid counterpart to compare with. As part of our Earth Day coverage today, we took a closer look at the following two questions:

  • Question #1: How far can we drive with a hybrid powertrain compared to a non-hybrid?
  • Question #2: When will the hybrid investment pay for itself through gas savings?
Before we go to the complete list let me explain the criteria we used. First of all we chose the "economy" powertrains, when we had the option. Therefore we'll be comparing mostly 4-cylinder models. In the case of SUVs, we chose the AWD/4WD versions. For a few models, we've compared them to the European diesel versions data, although this should be taken with a pinch of salt due to the EU's different driving cycles. Finally, we used $3.5/gal as the price of gasoline and added the car's MRSP price. Don't forget that some of these vehicles will qualify for various tax breaks, so you might have to recalculate our numbers for yourself. Got all that? Good, let's see the results (after the jump).

Case 1: Honda Civic

If you need a compact, sporty and nice sedan, the Civic is a good choice. It doesn't hurt at all that the Civic is available not only with two gasoline engines, but a natural gas and a hybrid version as well. Let's check how our two questions are answered for this model.

According to the official figures, the Honda Civic Sedan EX-L 1.8 gets 36/32 mpg (hwy/city). The Hybrid version gets 45/40 mpg. This is actually a good improvement, since we'll get 16 percent more miles from a tank of gas with the hybrid (553 vs 475). However, you won't be able to offset your savings until you drive 97,200 miles on the highway or 86,400 in city driving, because of the gasoline cost per mile.

Model Power (HP) MPG hwy MPG city Tank capacity Miles per tank MRSP Gas cost
per mile (hwy)
Gas cost
per mile (cty)
Honda Civic Hybrid 110 45 40 12.3 553.3 $22,600 $0.0778 $0.0875
Honda Civic Sedan EX-L 1.8 140 36 32 13.2 475 $20,710 $0.0972 $0.1094

If we check the European diesel Civic, with a 2.2-liter engine, 140 HP and 53/33 mpg, we can make up to 753 miles with a single tank (highway).

Case 2: Domestic sedans: Chevrolet Malibu and Saturn Aura

If you want a domestic sedan, both the Malibu and the Aura have good credentials. The redesigned Malibu is catching a lot of attention and the Aura has a lot in common with the Opel/Vauxhall Vectra. Both cars can be purchased with I4, V6 and, now, hybrid powertrains.

According to the official figures, both non-hybrid sedans get 30/22 mpg (hwy/cty) while the hybrids get 32/24 mpg. That isn't a spectacular leap. The hybrid will take us 6.7 percent further on a single tank, 512 vs 480 miles. We estimate you'll offset your hybrid premium after 200,000 miles of highway driving or about 100,000 of city driving.

Model Power (HP) MPG hwy MPG city Tank capacity Miles per tank MRSP Gas cost
per mile (hwy)
Gas cost
per mile (cty)
Chevy Malibu Hybrid 165 32 24 16 571 $22,140 $0.1458 $0.1094
Chevy Malibu 2.4 169 30 22 16 480 $19,645 $0.1167 $0.1591
Saturn Aura Hybrid 165 32 24 16 571 $23,650 $0.1458 $0.1094
Saturn Aura 2.4 169 30 22 16 480 $20,045 $0.1167 $0.1591

If we check the European Opel/Vauxhall Vectra 1.9 DTi, with a 2.2-liter engine, 150 HP with automatic - which gets 42 and 24.5 mpg - we see it can go up to 662 miles with a single tank of diesel.

Case 3: Import sedans: Nissan Altima and Toyota Camry

If you're interested in the sedan category, you will probably be looking at imports and domestics. Little more needs to be said about these two best-sellers. As above, we can buy them with an I4, a V6 or hybrid powertrains.

According to the official figures, the Altima Hybrid gets 35/33 mpg (hwy/cty) and the Camry Hybrid gets 34/33 while the non-hybrids get 31/23 and 31/21 mpg, respectively, offering quite an nice increase in city driving. Regarding how much we can run on a single tank, it's 13 percent more for the Altima and two percent more for the Camry (note: tank capacity is different, check the estimation of cost per mile). An estimation of when you'll offset your initial expense? You'll need 300,000 miles for highway driving or about 70,000 of city driving.

Model Power (HP) MPG hwy MPG city Tank capacity Miles per tank MRSP Gas cost
per mile (hwy)
Gas cost
per mile (cty)
Nissan Altima Hybrid
158 35 33 20 720 $25,170 $0.1000 $0.1061
Nissan Altima 2.5 175 31 23 20 620 $20,680 $0.1129 $0.1522
Toyota Camry Hybrid 187 34 33 17.2 585 $25,200 $0.1029 $0.1061
Toyota Camry 2.4 158 31 21 18.5 574 $21,075 $0.1129 $0.1667


Case 4: Luxury sedans: Lexus

Now, let's step up a level. Unfortunately, the only choice we have here is to speak about a single brand, Lexus. We have two options here, the GS and the LS. In this case, not many options were available to compare. If you wondered, only the IS has a diesel option for Europeans (with a very interesting 177 HP D-CAT engine).

According to the official figures, you shouldn't really be considering the hybrid version if you do mostly highway driving. The savings for both sedans are only worth it in city driving. The GS hybrid gets three mpg more than the regular GS. In the case of the LS flagship , the savings are more spectacular, up to 22 mpg from 16. Regarding how much we can run on a single tank, we will consider city driving. You'll drive six percent further in the case of the GS and a whopping 37.5 percent in case of the LS. To estimate when you'll offset your hybrid premium? Let's just say you'll need to drive a lot due to the huge price gap between the hybrid and the regular versions.

Model Power (HP) MPG hwy MPG city Tank capacity Miles per tank (city)
MRSP Gas cost
per mile (hwy)
Gas cost
per mile (cty)
Lexus
GS450h
340 25 22
17.2
378
$54,900 $0.1400 $0.1591
Lexus GS350 303
29
19 18.8
357 $44,150 $0.1296 $0.1842
Lexus LS600h 483 20
22 22.2
488
$104,000 $0.1750 $0.1591
Lexus LS460 380 24 16 22.2
355
$72,000 $0.1458 $0.2188


Case 5: Ford Escape/Mazda Tribute/Mercury Mariner

SUVs aren't considered very good green vehicles, but for someone who needs the carrying capacity, it's good we have hybrid powertrains make them better performers. In this case, we considered AWD versions just because we thought that if you wanted an SUV it was because you really needed it. You wouldn't buy an SUV if you didn't, right? Right?

According to the official figures, these compact hybrid SUVs get 29/27 mpg (hwy/cty) while the standard versions get 24/19 (hwy/city). Regarding on how far they will take us on a single tank, part of the improvement (about 10 percent) is because of the difference of the tank size. Our estimate is that you'll offset your initial expense after 200,000 miles of highway driving or about 80,000-100,000 of city driving. Like with the Lexus, this happens mostly because of the higher cost of the hybrid versions and not for the improvement in city mileage (which is about 30 percent).

Model Power (HP) MPG hwy MPG city Tank capacity Miles per tank MRSP Gas cost
per mile (hwy)
Gas cost
per mile (cty)
Ford Escape Hybrid 155 29 27
15
435
$28,390 $0.1207 $0.1296
Ford Escape 2.3 153
24
19 16.5
396 $21,880 $0.1458 $0.1842
Mazda Tribute Hybrid
155 29 27
15
435
$27,060 $0.1207 $0.1296
Mazda Tribute 2.3 153
24
19 16.5
396 $22,300 $0.1458 $0.1842
Mercury Mariner Hybrid
155 29 27
15
435
$29,090 $0.1207 $0.1296
Mercury Mariner 2.3 153
24
19 16.5
396 $23,050 $0.1458 $0.1842


Case 6: Compact SUVs - Toyota Highlander, Saturn VUE and Lexus RX

Although we could include these SUVs in the case above, we separated them not to make the tables too large, but you can compare them easily, and see that the Vue is the winner in terms of mileage and price, although it plays in a different league with a less powerful engine compared to the Toyota/Lexus.

According to the official figures, the Toyota/Lexus get five percent more miles on a tank, (it's smaller in the hybrid, though) and mileage is improved about 25 percent. In the case of the VUE, we run 23 percent more miles on a single tank of unleaded. Mileage is improved from 23/17 to 27/25 mpg (Highlander), 22/17 to 26/24 mpg for the RX. In the case of the VUE, improvement is remarkable, from 26/19 to 32/25 mpg. Payoff time? You need about 100,000 miles of highway driving to offset the price difference in the Highlander, 150,000 for the RX and the Vue. In case of city driving, figures go down to 35,000 miles, 65,000 and 93,000 miles, respectively.

Model Power (HP) MPG hwy MPG city Tank capacity Miles per tank MRSP Gas cost
per mile (hwy)
Gas cost
per mile (cty)
Toyota Highlander Hybrid 270 27 25 17.2 464 $33,799 $0.1296 $0.1400
Toyota Highlander Sport 270 23 17 19.2 422 $31,400 $0.1522 $0.2059
Lexus RX 400h 270 26 24 17.2 464 $42,680 $0.1346 $0.1458
Lexus RX350 270 22 17 19.2 422 $38,800 $0.1591 $0.2059
Saturn Vue Hybrid 172 32 25 19 608 $25,370 $0.1094 $0.1400
Saturn Vue XE 169 26 19 19 494 $21,250 $0.1346 $0.1842


Case 7: Large SUVs - Chevy Tahoe and GMC Yukon

For those cases in which you really need a large SUV, it's good that GM thought about installing a hybrid powertrain. While the hybrid system doesn't produce miracles in highway driving, it does have an solid effect in city driving, basically by not having the V8 idle while waiting at traffic lights.

According to the official figures, the Chevy/Yukon gets 19/14 mpg (hwy/city) and the Hybrid version gets 20/20 mpg. This is actually a good improvement in the case of city driving. Calcualting how many city blocks we can drive with a tank of unleaded, we see we can drive 35 percent further if we choose the hybrid powertrains (once again, the tank is smaller in the hybrid version). In order to offset the hybrid premium we will need about 180,000 miles of city driving.

Model Power (HP) MPG hwy MPG city Tank capacity Miles per tank (city)
MRSP Gas cost
per mile (hwy)
Gas cost
per mile (cty)
Chevrolet Tahoe Hybrid 332 20 20 24.5 490 $52,395 $0.1750 $0.1750
Chevrolet Tahoe 5.3
320 19 14 26 364 $38,490 $0.1842 $0.2500
GMC Yukon Hybrid 332 20 20 24.5 490 $52,882 $0.1750 $0.1750
GMC Yukon 5.3
320 19 14 26 364 $39,250 $0.1842 $0.2500


Case 8: Toyota Prius

We'll end this post with a most unfair comparison. The Prius is a model which is completely different from any current offerings at Toyota, so we just compared it to a Toyota Corolla (and then with a diesel Toyota Auris which is itself a very different car).

According to the official figures, the Toyota Corolla 1.8 Automatic gets 35/26 mpg (hwy/city). The Prius has America's best mileage with 48/45 mpg. It is actually a big difference and even with a smaller tank, we can driver 25 percent further in the case of the Prius. But when are you going to compensate for the difference in upfront cash? After about 210,000 miles of highway driving and 100,000 of city driving.

Model Power (HP) MPG hwy MPG city Tank capacity Miles per tank MRSP Gas cost
per mile (hwy)
Gas cost
per mile (cty)
Toyota Prius
110
48 45 11.9 553.3 $21,100 $0.0729 $0.0778
Toyota Corolla 1.8 Aut.
126 35 25
13.2 475 $15,205 $0.1000 $0.1346

If we check Toyota's European counterpart, there's the Auris, with a 2.0-liter engine, 126 HP and 48/33 mpg, we can make up to 680 miles with a single tank (highway). Again, bear in mind that this isn't exact due to Europe's and America's slightly different measuring systems.

In all cases, we see that buying a hybrid is not exactly going to make financial sense right away. Still, these numbers were calculated using $3.50 as the cost of a gallon. The higher that goes, the lower all the distances become. Think it over.

[Sources: Autoblog, official automaker's information]


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