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E pluribus unum.
That's what is says on the back of the one dollar bill. Out of many, one. Did our founding fathers truly understand the power of economics? Did they understand the democratic implications of capitalism? What does this have to do with cars?

This question isn't about the Honda Insight versus Hummer H2. This is about reasonable choices. You wouldn't ask Autoblog a question about whether to decide to buy a hybrid vehicle if you were a card-carrying Greenpeace member, or an ardent believer in the endlessness of the oil supply. You ask, because you, like the millions, are a careful consumer whose need for safety, image, fun and comfort must be balanced according to your needs.


Why hybrids are for today
Hybrids are an intermediate solution to the problem of limited fossil fuels. Hydrogen, electric, fuel cell (right) and biodiesel offer a better longer-term solution from imported petroleum. Hybrids just prolong the date in which gas runs out. In effect, the more fuel efficient we become, the slower the rate of rising gas prices and ergo buys us time to develop alternative fuels. We?ll all be using gas until an alternative technology ends up costing us less.

Let me take you back to grade school math where we learned how to find common denominators. Oh yeah, I remember, I think. The common denominator helps you work with seemingly very different numbers. The common denominator in any car purchase is the almighty dollar.

<a class=Ford Escape Hybrid" src="http://www.weblogsinc.com/common/images/4856418185341518.JPG?0.2969798213393767" align="right" border="1" height="207" hspace="4" vspace="4" width="250" />True costs of ownership
A hybrid car like the Honda Accord (top) and Ford Escape (right) will cost around $3,000 more than the gas-only variant. Take a real-world gas mileage estimate from a publication (not the EPA) and figure out how much you could save. Then, take your depreciation, tax (congress currently provides a $1,000 tax break for some hybrids bought in 2005, less in 2006.), interest on financing and maintenance into account (Edmunds is a great site for this) and voila! There?s your basic financial equation. However, before you begin, let me share with you a surprising fact. Based on numbers alone, the vast majority of consumers will never benefit financially from owning a hybrid.

The Toyota Prius, which has no gas-only counterpart, is really a technology showcase. A more practical Honda Insight, if you will. It?s a niche product with a quirky image that?s enjoying temporary success due to its limited supply. The Accord, Civic, Escape and the new Lexus RX400h will dwarf the sales of Priuses in the near future because they are mainstream. Far more gallons of gas will be saved from these ho-hum models, then their weird cousin, the Prius.

Performance factor
If all else ? performance, safety, reliability, etc. ? were equal, not many people would buy a hybrid. But they are not. The Escape and Accord and the RX400h (below) are expected to offer better performance, for less gas due to their high-torque electric motor. As for safety, nothing suggests a hybrid is any more or less safe. And reliability? We?re just beginning to see hybrid cross the 100,000 mile threshold, and for now they show very few reports of problems. Honda actually just sold their 100,000th hybrid.

Lexus RX400h So, it?s back to the numbers. Let?s take the hybrid Honda for example, if you drive 15,000 miles a year and gas averages $2.50 a gallon, you could save $391 a year on fuel. Include the tax deduction, add additional interest for the extra $3,300 you?ll need to shell out, and in 5 years, you could still be $1,200 or more behind a normal Accord. So ask yourself. Is the additional performance, and the earth-friendly glow of the digital dashboard worth the extra cash? You might decide yes, but certainly it?s not a bad thing to say no.

Back to the dollar
It all makes a circle back to the dollar bill. E pluribus unum. Out of many, one. The many millions of consumers will ultimately dictate the pace of innovation. The more we clamor for better performing, less expensive hybrids, the more effort car companies will spend trying to deliver that car. Right now, the message is clear: most people don?t believe it?s worth the price, while a few do. And automakers certainly see this as a positive sign that their next innovation just might pay off. I?m waiting until I can find a hybrid that will perform better and save me money in the end.

ASK AUTOBLOG: We?re an answer in search of a problem. Ask Autoblog is your chance to stump us with your questions about the car buying process, whether it is new or used, private party or dealer, or comparisons like ?What?s right for me? A used Sherman Tank or a new Mini Cooper??

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