Over the past few years, hybrid and diesel powertrains have become available in many different cars. Usually, they're version is more expensive than the standard, gasoline engine. We wondered, do you actually recoup their extra cost, and if so, how long does it take?
The federal government has offered generous tax incentives for hybrid and diesel vehicles. However, for many hybrid models, those rebates have begun to phase out. Several states, however, still offer incentives that can lower the cost of a new hybrid. Because of the variable nature of these incentives, we will not include them in our calculations.
There are several stand-alone hybrid vehicles on the market, including the Honda Insight, Lexus HS, and Toyota Prius. For our purposes, we're much more interested in models offered with both internal combustion and alternative powertrains, because they can be more directly compared.
By the Numbers, Here are our Criteria
We've picked three offerings with hybrid and regular powertrain options, a popularly priced sedan and two luxury SUVs: the Ford Fusion, Mercedes-Benz ML (which has gasoline, hybrid, and diesel powertrain options), and the Lexus RX.
The numbers we'll use for the comparisons come from the EPA's website. Your fuel economy results and annual miles driven may vary, but EPA estimates are a reasonable baseline. EPA fuel economy figures are based on 55 percent city and 45 percent highway driving. Hybrid models often perform better in the city, in some cases operating on battery power alone, while diesels excel on the freeway. The EPA estimates that the average American drives approximately 15,000 miles annually. For our calculations, we'll use the national fuel price average of $2.93 per gallon for regular gas, $3.22 for premium, and $3.13 for diesel. Fuel prices were taken from AAA's fuel gauge report on the day this story was published.
Ford Fusion, hybrid versus gasoline
The 2010 Ford Fusion is available in five trim levels: S, SE, SEL, Sport, and Hybrid. Powertrain options include a 2.5-liter I-4, 3.0-liter V-6, 3.5-liter V-6, and the hybrid which uses a 2.5-liter I-4 coupled to an electric motor. The up level SEL and Sport models are available with either front-wheel-drive or all-wheel-drive. S and SE trims can be paired with either a 5-speed manual or 6-speed automatic transmission.
Manufacturers often package hybrid offerings with more equipment to help justify the higher sticker price. For the Fusion, the four-cylinder SEL most closely matches the equipment level of the Hybrid. The SEL has a 6-speed automatic transmission, while the hybrid is mated to a continuously variable transmission. The SEL has 175 hp and 172 lb-ft of torque, compared to the hybrid's 191 hp (with both the electric motor and gas engine powering the wheels in concert) and 135 lb-ft of torque. Both sedans come equipped with niceties including Sync, 17-inch wheels, and dual-zone climate control. A few minor options differentiate the two. The SEL includes a chrome exhaust, leather, heated front seats, and ambient lighting, while the Hybrid includes a 6-disc in-dash CD changer, passive anti-theft system, and an auto-dimming rear view mirror.
The 2010 Fusion SEL starts at $25,405 (including $750 for destination). The Hybrid comes in a little higher at $28,675, a $3270 premium. The SEL gets a city/highway combined average of 25 mpg, while the Hybrid achieves 39 mpg. Based on $2.93 per gallon, the SEL costs 11.7 cents per mile to operate, whereas the Hybrid costs only 7.5 cents per mile. At 15,000 miles per year, the annual fuel savings for the Fusion Hybrid would be $630. A Hybrid owner would break even in just 77,857 miles, or a little more than five years.
Additionally, the Fusion Hybrid owner would enjoy a longer cruising range of 663 miles, versus the SEL's 438 miles. And the EPA says the the annual carbon dioxide produced from the SEL would be 7.5 tons while the Hybrid would emit just 4.8 tons.
- Hybrid price premium over SEL $3270
- Hybrid Fusion offers annual fuel savings of $630
- Price premium can be recouped within 6 years or 77,857 miles
Mercedes ML, gasoline versus diesel
Mercedes offers several trim levels for its midsize sport utility. The ML350 is the baseline offering, followed by the ML350 Bluetec (diesel), ML450 Hybrid, ML550, and ML63 AMG. Available powerplants include a 3.0-liter V-6 diesel, 3.5-liter V-6, 3.5-liter V-6 hybrid, 5.5-liter V-8, and a 6.2-liter V-8 found in the AMG model. Again, no two models are exactly alike, but the ML350 and ML350 Bluetec are essentially very similar. The ML350 has a 3.5-liter V-6 and a starting price of $46,575 (including $875 for delivery), the ML350 diesel starts at $50,575 (a $5000 premium). (The ML450 Hybrid is available only for lease.)
The ML350 puts out 268 hp and 258 lb-ft of torque, allowing it to tow 4600 lbs. The ML350 Bluetec makes 201 hp and 400 lb-ft of torque and is capable of towing 5000 lbs.
Fuel costs are a little different in this case, as the gasoline-burning ML350 calls for premium, while diesel is the requisite energy source for the ML350 Bluetec. The national average for premium grade fuel is $3.22, with diesel commanding a slightly lower $3.13 per gallon. The combined fuel economy for an ML350 is 18 mpg, costing 17.9 cents per mile to operate. An ML350 Bluetec averages 21 mpg and costs 14.9 cents for every mile driven.
So, the yearly fuel cost for an ML350 comes in at $2685, and the ML350 Bluetec is $2235. If you choose the diesel powertrain over the standard ML350, it will take 133,333 miles or just over 9 years to break even.
- Price premium for ML350 Bluetec $4000
- Annual cost savings would be $450 for the diesel
- ML350 Bluetec breakeven point can be realized in 133,333 miles
Lexus RX, hybrid versus gasoline
The Lexus RX was the first luxury hybrid SUV, and the current version still offers both hybrid and traditional gasoline models. Both are available with either front-wheel drive or all-wheel drive. The RX350 is powered by a 3.5-liter V-6 gasoline engine and the RX450h uses a 3.5-liter V-6 along with an electric motor. Pricing for the RX350 starts at $38,125 (including $875 for delivery), whereas the RX450h is priced at $43,560 (a $5435 premium).
With help from the electric motor, the RX450h produces 295 hp, compared to the RX350's 275 hp. The hybrid uses a continuously variable transmission, whereas the RX350 has a 6-speed automatic. Both vehicles come standard with 18-inch wheels, iPod connectivity, Bluetooth, and 9-speaker sound system. Accoutrements like parking assist, backup camera, or a power rear hatch cost extra.
Both models use premium fuel, but their mileage varies greatly. The RX350 gets 21 mpg combined, costing 15.3 cents per mile to operate. The RX450h is rated at 30 mpg, which works out to 10.7 cents per mile. A year's worth of fuel for an RX350 will run $2295, while you'll spend just $1605 to fill up the RX450h. If your heart is set on Lexus' hybrid SUV, it will take 118,152 miles, just over 11 years before you start to see any savings.
- RX450h costs $5435 more than RX350
- Annual cost savings for hybrid $690
- RX450h will break even with RX350 in 118,152 miles
Remember, all the numbers figured are based on today's fuel prices and can fluctuate based on the cost of fuel. AAA says the highest average fuel price for regular grade in the U.S. was recorded on July 17, 2008, at $4.11 per gallon. At that price, hybrid or diesel vehicles will look more enticing. As fuel prices increase, the breakeven point for a hybrid or diesel vehicle will not be quite as long. If you're in the market for a new ride and you're considering a hybrid or diesel vehicle, be sure to run the numbers based on average fuel prices in your area, how much of your driving is done in urban versus highway environments, and if the added standard equipment that comes with a hybrid vehicle is important to you.