The key advantage of a "hybrid" electric vehicle (HEV) is that it marries the best attributes of a conventional internal combustion engine (ICE) powertrain to those of a more efficient (and zero-emissions) electric drive system. The major disadvantage is that it totes around most of two propulsion systems to do it. That means nearly double the powertrain weight, more than twice the powertrain cost (including the necessary complex controls) and a lot more space required to package all that hardware in the vehicle.
As a result, most HEVs are substantially more expensive and several hundred pounds heavier than comparable ICE vehicles, and most sacrifice some cargo and/or interior space. The added weight tends to compromise the vehicle's handling dynamics and sacrifices some of its fuel-saving capability, and the low rolling-resistance tires often used to maximize HEV efficiency also bring trade-offs in ride, handling and tire wear.
Before deciding to lease or purchase any hybrid vehicle, potential buyers should consider whether its disadvantages outweigh the obvious advantage of less fuel burned over the period of ownership. Do the fuel dollars saved justify the higher price and any compromises in performance or comfort?
For example, if a hybrid vehicle will cost $3,000 more than the non-hybrid that would best serve your needs, and you keep it for three years, you'll need to save $1,000 a year on gas to break even. If the hybrid's (now fairly accurate) EPA "combined" fuel economy rating is 30 miles per gallon, it will burn roughly 400 gallons over the typical 12,000 miles each year. Who knows where gas prices will go, but at $4.00 a gallon, that's an annual cost of $1,600.
If a comparably equipped non-hybrid will deliver 10 mpg less at 20 mpg, it will burn 600 gallons a year at a cost of $2,400. The annual difference would be $800 a year, or $2,400 over the three years - $600 less than the extra $3,000 you might have paid for the hybrid vehicle.
If the hybrid price premium is more, of course, it will take more time, more miles, a larger fuel economy advantage and/or more expensive gas to pay it off, and vice versa. One other financial consideration is resale value. Maybe because of worries over potential technical problems and post-warranty battery replacement cost, Kelley Blue Book residual values for popular hybrids tend to be lower than those for comparable non-hybrids of the same brand.
Other disadvantages depend on the vehicle and the potential owner's needs. Only the current GM and Chrysler hybrid SUVs and pickups, and the coming BMW and Mercedes hybrids that use the same 2-Mode system, can tow or haul heavy loads. And qualified post-warranty service (if needed) is likely to be expensive.
Typical hybrid disadvantages vs. conventional ICE counterparts include:
- Higher price
- Added weight
- Somewhat decreased passenger and/or cargo room
- Lesser performance and handling
- Little or no fuel saving at highway speeds (single-mode hybrids)
- Lower towing and hauling capabilities
- Possibly more expensive post-warranty service
- Potentially lower resale value
Because all hybrid systems are not the same, each has its own unique characteristics. We recommend that any potential buyer's purchase decision should be driven by each specific vehicle's economics and attributes and his or her needs and priorities.
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