Electricity is not a magic bullet

This is not a hybrid(74103)Hybrids and electric cars get a lot of press these days - as they should, for the technological innovations they introduce and the undeniable gas mileage advantages they bring.  But often overlooked is a recent mini renaissance in the development of the good old internal combustion engine.  Thanks to the availability of massive computing power at obscenely low prices (both the in-vehicle systems and the facilities the engineers use to model engine air flow and other performance metrics), lighter materials, and old technologies like direct injection and turbochargers becoming more efficient, cleaner, and more cost effective, gas powered cars today can achieve excellent gas mileage without some of the trade-offs associated with hybrids.

The biggest downside of hybrids?  Among car models which offer both hybrid and traditional versions, there's often a premium of $4000 or more for the more fuel efficient version, given otherwise similar equipment.  Four grand might buy you a 50 mpg hybrid, but it will also pay for a lot of gas on that 40 mpg vehicle. 

As with any decision, especially one involving five-digit expenditures, there are a variety of factors to consider when choosing between a hybrid and non-hybrid.

  • Where do you do most of your driving?  On the highway, hybrids' fuel efficiency advantages are less pronounced; it's in city driving where they shine.
  • If you're considering a specific hybrid model, look for data on battery life and the cost of replacement.  Compare the potential long-term maintenance costs!
  • Which is more important to you - being "green" or saving money?  Many people are willing to go with a hybrid even if the long-term costs exceed those of a traditional alternative, because of the environmental and/or political statement it makes.  Think about how much you're willing to compromise in which direction.
  • How much driving do you do?  If you have a long daily commute and rack up the miles fast, the hybrid option will pay for itself much faster.

Let's take a look at a few of the inexpensive fuel efficient non-hybrid four-doors that have been recently introduced or significantly revamped - and keep in mind that many more are coming in the next few years, with even more features and better efficiency!

(MPG figures below are from manufacturers' stated EPA ratings for the most fuel efficient non-hybrid model in the lineup.)

Ford Focus

The Focus was redesigned for the 2001 model year and received much acclaim for its handling and its extensive list of standard and available features.  Current models use a 160 HP 2.0 liter 4 cylinder, though a sportier turbocharged version is in the works.

Ford Focus InteriorCredit: Ford.com

Ford Focus ExteriorCredit: Ford.com

City MPG Highway MPG Staring Price
 28  40  $16,500

Chevy Cruze

Introduced to much fanfare as one of the first products of a revamped, "post-bailout" GM, the Cruze has been a sales success.  It offers excellent fuel economy in the 1.4 L turbo model ($19.995 MSRP), an upscale interior, and excellent safety features.

Chevrolet CruzeCredit: Chevrolet.com

Cruze InteriorCredit: Chevrolet.com
City MPG Highway MPG Staring Price
 28  42  $16,500

Hyundai Elantra

The latest Elantra features a 148 HP 4-cylinder motor.  The car's owners praise its bang-for-the-buck feature and option list.

Hyundai Elantra InteriorCredit: HyundiaUSA.com

Hyundai Elantra ExteriorCredit: HyundiaUSA.com

City MPG Highway MPG Staring Price
 29  40  $16,445

And that's not all

The above list is of course a limited one.  There are many options from many manufacturers at price ranges higher and (a few) lower than the examples provided here.

The point is, don't assume that a hybrid is automatically your best option for getting the best dollars-per-mile deal in the automotive world.  Depending on your requirements and your driving habits, there might be better values out there!