Hybrids: Seven worries, seven answers

Sometimes buyers avoid hybrids for the wrong reasons. But, for some buyers, their worries are well founded.

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By Peter Valdes-Dapena, CNNMoney.com staff writer


NEW YORK (CNNMoney.com) -- When they're thinking about buying a hybrid vehicle, people sometimes worry about stuff that's just silly. Sometimes, though, they're absolutely right to be concerned.

In a survey done in cooperation with Harris Interactive, Kelley Blue Book's Web site, KBB.com, asked car shoppers who were considering a hybrid what worried them about the vehicles.

We've evaluated the top seven concerns -- for all of them, at least two-thirds of respondents were "somewhat worried."

1. Worry: Hybrids have complicated technology that is difficult or expensive to fix

To be fair, every car today has complicated technology that's difficult to fix. The old days of listening for a funny noise then taking a wrench to the problem are long gone. Today's cars are packed with complicated electronics and computer chips.

Still, working on a hybrid car will require some special training that your corner mechanic probably won't have. For the time being, you'll be taking it to the dealership for any needed repairs. And even the dealership may only have one or two mechanics trained on hybrids.

As far as expense goes, the hybrid-specific components of most hybrid vehicles have extremely long warrantees, so cost shouldn't be an issue.

Simple maintenance, like changing the oil or brake pads or rotating tires, can be done by your neighborhood mechanic, pointed out Tony Mossa, a spokesman for the Institute for Automotive Service Excellence, a group that certifies professional mechanics. As far as those sorts of things go, a hybrid vehicle presents no special challenges. Just make sure to keep careful records for warranty purposes.

Conclusion: It's a slight concern for now.

2. Worry: Hybrids have limited battery pack life

Unlike cell phone or laptop batteries, hybrid batteries go through their entire functional lives without ever being fully charged or discharged. Hybrid vehicles run on a regular gasoline-powered engine assisted by an electric motor. The electric motor's battery is charged by the gas engine during braking and idling.

So, hybrid car batteries are designed to move energy in and out quickly and efficiently, said Tom Watson, Hybrid Propulsion Systems Manager for Ford Motor Co.

Both Toyota and Ford claim to have hybrid vehicles in fleet use that have lasted well over 100,000 miles -- Toyota claims a few vehicles with over 200,000 miles.

Besides, typically there are extremely long warranties on hybrid components, including batteries. Toyota guarantees all hybrid-specific components on their vehicles for 10 years or 100,000 miles. Ford guarantees them for 8 years or 100,000 miles and Honda for 8 years or 80,000 miles.

Conclusion: Not a major concern.

3. Worry: Hybrids have technical problems like stalling and sputtering

This concern stems from a 2005 Toyota Prius recall last year. Priuses' gasoline engines would sometimes shut off during highway driving. Fortunately, the cars still had electrical power sufficient to drive a few miles while maintaining power for steering and braking systems.

The problem was a software glitch. All hybrid cars turn off their gasoline engines under some circumstances, such as when the vehicle is momentarily stopped at an intersection. The Prius was shutting off its engine at the wrong time.

Owners of affected vehicles were instructed to take their cars to the dealership where new software was installed that fixed the problem. All Priuses made since have the new software.

Conclusion: Not a real concern. Non-hybrid cars get recalled sometimes, too.

4. Worry: Hybrids do not pay for themselves to justify their premium cost

According to most analyses, including one by Consumer Reports, it would be difficult to justify purchasing a hybrid for economic reasons alone.

Even if gasoline costs continue to rise, according to Consumer Reports' 2006 analysis, only the Honda Civic Hybrid and Toyota Prius could be said to save money over a five-year ownership period once all costs are factored in. And even in those cases, the savings involved are $80 a year or less. You could save more by simply accelerating and braking more gently in your current vehicle.

The two biggest reasons that hybrids don't save their owners money are the higher initial cost and fast depreciation.

A more recent analysis by Edmunds.com, taking into account new tax incentives, indicated that some hybrid vehicles will save enough to pay for their extra cost. Tax incentives for some popular brands, such as Toyota, have either phased out by now or will be phased out soon, however,

Conclusion: A legitimate concern. Don't buy a hybrid just to save gas money. Even if you save some money, it probably won't be much.

5. Worry: Hybrids do not offer the driving performance needed

It depends on which hybrid vehicle you're talking about and what your driving performance "need" is.

Hybrid powertrains are more fuel-efficient than non-hybrid ones. That means they can get more power out of the same amount of fuel. So a car can use a smaller gasoline engine while offering the same performance as a car with a larger engine.

It also means the vehicle can use the same sized engine more efficiently while also gaining a little extra power and quickness, as with the Honda Accord Hybrid or the Toyota Highlander Hybrid. When tested by CNNMoney.com, the difference in power between the regular V-6-powered Highlander and the Highlander Hybrid was quite noticeable. The Highlander Hybrid offered more responsive acceleration.

On the other hand, vehicles like the Toyota Highlander Hybrid don't save as much fuel as they could if they were equipped with smaller gasoline engines. Vehicles that do have smaller engines, like the Ford Escape Hybrid and Honda Civic Hybrid, still offer power that's more than adequate for daily use, including merging and passing. You won't blow anyone's doors off, but you also won't waste quite as much of your life pumping gas.

Conclusion: You have to choose your priorities.

6. Worry: Hybrids will not hold resale value

Don't be fooled by stories about used Toyota Priuses selling for near-new prices. The Prius is a unique, hybrid-only vehicle with an eye-catching design. It's produced and, until this year, was sold in low volumes.

Its high resale value has more to do with those factors than with the simple fact that it's a hybrid. In terms of holding its value as a used car, the Prius has more in common with the fashionable Mini Cooper, another resale value champ, than a Ford Escape Hybrid SUV.

Like the Escape, most hybrid vehicles are versions of ordinary, non-hybrid vehicles with little to visually distinguish them. Even in the new car market, these vehicles are not selling as well as they once did.

Also, hybrid vehicles will be facing increasing competition from clean-burning diesel vehicles that will be entering the U.S. market in large numbers over the next few years. These cars and SUVs will also get excellent fuel economy without the technical complexity and space-robbing battery packs that hybrid cars have.

Conclusion: A genuine cause for concern.

7. Worry: Hybrids do not get the level of mileage promised

If you look at the most EPA mileage ratings, what you see is actually pretty close to what you'll get. The EPA changed its fuel economy tests for the 2008 model year, resulting in lower - but more realistic - fuel economy numbers for most vehicles.

The new numbers can make hybrid cars seem less worthwhile. For example, the Toyota Prius is now estimated to get 46 miles per gallon overall instead of 56.

But remember, the fuel economy numbers for all vehicles were similarly impacted. So if you compare annual fuel costs of vehicles, instead of just looking at the miles-per-gallon numbers, you'll actually see a larger gap than before.

So, you may be spending more on fuel than you expected but, at the same time, you may be saving more than you thought.

Conclusion: New EPA numbers are smaller, but more accurate. But remember that the numbers are smaller for all types of vehicles.


This story was updated in December, 2007. To top of page

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