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Study: Just One-Third of Hybrids Save Money Versus Non-Hybrid Counterparts

Onetime tax incentives for hybrid-electric vehicles expired nearly four years ago, leaving consumers to wonder which hybrids actually save money versus their non-hybrid counterparts. Vincentric, a Michigan-based data provider, ran its latest cost-of-ownership model on dozens of hybrids. The result? A third of them save you money over five years’ ownership, but most end up costing more.

Related: Study: Despite Recent Relief, Americans Spend More on Gas Overall

Vincentric analyzed cost-of-ownership data on 30 hybrids for the 2014 model year. The company found the average price premium for a hybrid versus its non-hybrid counterpart is $4,325, but five years’ ownership and 75,000 total miles trim the hybrid premium to just $1,339. Over that same timespan, 10 of the 30 hybrids studied save money versus their non-hybrid counterparts. The thriftiest car, the 2014 Lexus CT 200h, saves $7,632 over five years. Still, Lexus also makes the worst value in the group — the 2014 GS 450h, which Vincentric says costs $8,155 more than its GS 350 counterpart.

Which hybrids come out on top? And which will cost you more? Read on to find out.

Vincentric’s five-year ownership costs account for factors like insurance, maintenance, financing and repairs. The latest data came as of August 2014, with fuel prices weighted over the past five months.

These hybrids have net savings versus their non-hybrid counterparts over that period, according to Vincentric. Unless otherwise noted, all of them are 2014s.

  • Lexus CT 200h: $7,632 saved (versus IS 250 sedan)
  • Toyota Avalon Hybrid: $3,356 saved
  • Lincoln MKZ Hybrid: $3,252 saved
  • Audi Q5 Hybrid: $2,611 saved
  • Acura ILX Hybrid: $1,613 saved
  • Hyundai Sonata Hybrid: $1,379 saved
  • Lexus ES 300h: $1,179 saved
  • Toyota Camry Hybrid (2014.5): $1,075 saved
  • Infiniti QX60 Hybrid: $191 saved
  • Honda Insight: $86 saved (versus Civic LX sedan, automatic)

Most hybrids in the analysis, however, incurred a net cost over five years:

  • Lexus GS 450h: $8,155 more
  • Volkswagen Touareg Hybrid: $7,538 more
  • Mercedes-Benz E400 Hybrid: $4,646 more
  • BMW 7 Series ActiveHybrid: $4,558 more
  • Honda CR-Z, automatic: $4,057 more (versus Civic LX sedan, automatic)
  • Lexus RX 450h: $3,988 more
  • BMW 3 Series ActiveHybrid: $3,573 more
  • Porsche Cayenne Hybrid: $3,185 more
  • Toyota Highlander Hybrid: $3,093 more
  • Honda Accord Hybrid: $2,680 more
  • Infiniti Q50 Hybrid: $2,675 more
  • Volkswagen Jetta Hybrid: $2,531 more
  • Ford Fusion Hybrid: $2,444 more
  • Infiniti Q70 Hybrid: $2,392 more
  • Kia Optima Hybrid: $2,154 more
  • Honda Civic Hybrid: $1,324 more
  • Toyota Camry Hybrid: $1,198 more
  • Subaru XV Crosstrek Hybrid: $999 more
  • Ford C-Max: $788 more (versus Focus SE hatchback, automatic)
  • Nissan Pathfinder Hybrid: $221 more

The 2014.5 Toyota Camry Hybrid’s big swing versus the 2014 Camry Hybrid is a result of a steep drop in MSRP for the 2014.5 model, noted David Wurster, Vincentric’s co-founder and president. The company tried to match equivalent trim levels whenever possible — the Audi Q5 Hybrid Prestige versus a Q5 3.0T Prestige, for example — but in many cases it’s impossible to get an exact version of the non-hybrid. Take the 2014 Honda Civic, whose hybrid version has alloy wheels and automatic climate control, plus some advanced safety tech but no moonroof or leather. No version of the non-hybrid Civic can match that combination, so Vincentric took a sort-of-equivalent Civic EX. It’s not apples and oranges, but think of it as Granny Smiths and Fujis.

Certain cars have no non-hybrid version, so Vincentric took the closest it could find — the Ford C-Max versus the same-platform Focus hatchback, for example, or Lexus’ IS 250 versus the CT 200h. Others proved too difficult to line up against a non-hybrid counterpart, which conspicuously nixed the popular Toyota Prius. Vincentric compared the Prius against the Corolla or erstwhile Matrix in years past, Wurster said, but it had a “difficult time [this year] trying to compare it with anything.”

Fewer Savers
Compared to earlier studies, Vincentric says fewer hybrids save money versus their gasoline counterparts. Wurster said it’s because of gas prices, which have been in steady decline through much of the year.

“Fuel economy has become less of a differentiator,” he told us. “However, there are other reasons to purchase these vehicles. They’re not burning a lot of carbon, so there’s an environmental reason to do this. A lot of these vehicles [also] have very high levels of technologies going into them.”

That 2014 Civic Hybrid, for example, has lane departure and forward collision warning systems — two features required to be on at least some version of a car to secure Top Safety Pick Plus status from the Insurance Institute for Highway Safety. Neither feature is available on the non-hybrid Civic.

What about lower maintenance costs? Many hybrids have unique maintenance schedules that can affect ownership costs. Take regenerative brakes, which are ubiquitous among hybrids. They typically reduce the wear and tear on your brake pads and rotors. Still, the difference appears to be negligible — or offset by other factors. In terms of overall five-year maintenance costs, Vincentric sees little difference between hybrids and non-hybrids.

“We haven’t seen [maintenance savings] play out,” Wurster said. But Vincentric plans to do a deeper analysis of hybrid versus non-hybrid maintenance in early 2015, and he expects to have additional findings next year.

Efficient Gasoline Cars
“The other thing that competes with these vehicles isn’t necessarily their own gas counterpart, but it’s other fuel-efficient gas vehicles,” Wurster said. “If you’re shopping and comparing two completely different vehicles and just interested in fuel economy, you may do better yet in just finding a gas vehicle with super high fuel economy.”

It’s true. Take the Ford Fusion Hybrid. Its 42 mpg combined EPA rating represents a sizeable gain versus the non-hybrid Fusion’s 25 to 29 mpg combined, depending on drivetrain. But among all non-hybrid family sedans, the Mazda6 gets up to 32 mpg combined — and if you’re willing to go diesel, the Volkswagen Passat TDI gets up to 35 mpg. Cross shop the competition and a hybrid’s relative efficiency diminishes.

“Fuel economy of regular cars is just getting better and better,” AutoPacific analyst Ed Kim said. “The value proposition [of hybrids] is increasingly smaller for a lot of people.”

Six-Plus Years?
Extend your ownership beyond Vincentric’s five-year horizon, however, and the math works out in hybrids’ favor — even versus the most efficient non-hybrid competitors. More people are extending that ownership: In its October 2014 report, CNW Research said consumers plan to keep their car “far longer” than before the recession. Less than 30 percent of new-car buyers said they plan to keep their car for six years or less. Thirty-six percent, meanwhile, said they plan to keep their car for 10 years or more.

If fuel savings are gravy, 10 years’ ownership is enough for a Thanksgiving feast.

“Depreciation is the really relevant issue,” Wurster said. “If you keep your vehicle after five years — six, seven, eight years, nine years, 10 years — at the end of that period, depreciation has slowed down dramatically. And at that point it becomes an operating cost issue. So if you have a vehicle that has high fuel economy, you’ll be relatively better off.”

Don’t Forget the Deals
Low gas prices drive the break-even point between a hybrid and non-hybrid further down the road, but there’s an offsetting factor today: incentives. Fuel prices hit a four-year low this summer, and an Oct. 26 forecast from Goldman Sachs slashed oil prices for 2015 to levels not seen since 2010. That’s trouble for certain industries but means savings for drivers.

How did shoppers respond? By purchasing everything but hybrids. New-car sales gained 9.4 percent in September, but sales for plug-free hybrids fell 6.5 percent, according to the Electric Drive Transportation Association. For hybrids, that was the fourth straight month of year-over-year declines.

Come October, automakers fired up the incentives. Today, the 2014 Fusion Hybrid and 2014.5 Camry Hybrid have up to $2,000 on the hood. The 2014 Prius has up to $1,500. Ford even offers $500 off the 2015 C-Max. Nissan, meanwhile, has up to $4,000 off a 2014 Pathfinder Hybrid — four times the incentives on a non-hybrid Pathfinder. Compare those incentives to the situation a year ago (October 2013 on 2013/2014 models) and they’ve all increased.

“It’s insane how cheap they are,” Kim said. “It’s not just that fuel prices have been going down recently. If you look further back in time, we had a pretty long period of fuel price stability. … When you have fuel price instability, fuel prices shoot up and shoot back down and they’re very unstable. That’s when people panic.”

Want the full details on all 30 hybrids in Vincentric’s analysis? Click here for the details. photo by Evan Sears