Are gasoline-electric hybrids worth the extra money you'll have to pay to get one?
A new study by the automotive consumer Web site Edmunds.com says "yes" - if you're willing to hold on to the vehicle for a while.
"The ones that stand out are the Toyota Prius and the Ford Escape hybrid," said Alex Rosten, the Edmunds analyst who conducted the survey. "On the Escape, the premium is only about $1,200, which takes into account a $2,600 federal income tax credit."
Some hybrids will take longer than others to recoup their extra purchase cost at the gas pumps, though.
So if you're the type who likes to trade cars every two or three years, most of the hybrids on the market today won't allow you to recover your additional investment at the gas pumps in that time frame.
The most popular hybrid will, however. That's the Toyota Prius five-passenger mid-size hatchback, which Rosten said will pay back its $1,400 extra cost on the original purchase in 2.1 years. (That assumes the car is driven 15,000 miles a year, that gasoline is $3 a gallon and that the vehicle will achieve the EPA's average city/highway combined fuel economy rating.)
On this and all models considered by the study, the premium paid for the hybrid system takes into account the federal tax credit available, Rosten said.
Tax credits run as high as $3,400 but will be reduced or eliminated as automakers reach annual hybrid sales caps determined by the Internal Revenue Service.
The credit on the Prius, for instance - $3,150 - will drop 50 percent to $1,575 after Sept. 30.
That impending deadline is driving sales of the Prius right now more than the high cost of gasoline, Rosten said.
The study suggests the Prius will save $671 a year at the pump, using the 15,000-mile total. And if the car were driven 25,000 miles a year, it would recover its extra cost in 1.7 years. (Because there is no gasoline-only version of the Prius, Edmunds compared the price of the Prius with the 2007 Toyota Camry LE).
Second on the Edmunds list is the 2007 Escape hybrid, a five-passenger compact sport utility vehicle. It was projected to recover the $1,218 extra cost of the hybrid system in 2.9 years at 15,000 miles a year, and 1.7 years at 25,000 annual miles. (The premium was calculated from the cost of a 2007 Escape XLT, a gasoline model).
The rest of the hybrid pack would take considerably longer to earn back the premium buyers pay, Rosten said, but that doesn't necessarily rule them out.
The all-new 2007 Saturn Vue, also a five-passenger compact SUV; the 2006 Honda Civic hybrid; and the 2007 Toyota Camry hybrid all would break even within about six years at 15,000 miles a year, Rosten concluded.
The Vue, with an annual fuel savings of $294, would recover the extra money in 3.4 years at 25,000 miles driven annually.
But the 2006 Honda Accord hybrid, with a premium of $3,165 and an annual fuel savings of just $280, would take 11.3 years to break even at 15,000 miles a year.
Worst in the study was the 2006 Toyota Highlander, a mid-size SUV, which would take 15.5 years to recover its additional cost of $6,896, assuming it is driven 15,000 miles a year.
As for the Prius, though, when compared with the Toyota Corolla LE, it would take 13.6 years to break even at 15,000 miles a year, Rosten said. Both cars have similar interior space.
That underscores a simple but glaring flaw in the argument in favor of hybrid vehicles: There are no cheap hybrids.
Consumers can choose gasoline-only cars that seat five and approach 40 mpg for as low as $11,000. For more about the hybrid study, visit the Web site at www.edmunds.com.