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Is a hybrid car a luxury item?

By Claes Bell ·
Saturday, July 9, 2011
Posted: 7 am ET

Not all hybrid cars are created equal. Some deliver genuine benefits to the environment and consumers, while others are just pricey options that allow automakers to cash in on those five green little letters.

This week the Union of Concerned Scientists unveiled its 2011 Hybrid Scorecard to help consumers tell the difference. The Scorecard rates hybrid car models on a number of different criteria, including environmental benefits over standard models and bang for the buck.

The study rates the Toyota Prius the top hybrid, with top marks in value, gas mileage, environmental benefit and forced features, followed by the Honda Civic Hybrid, the Honda Insight, the Ford Fusion Hyubrid and the Hyundai Sonata Hybrid.

That last criterion -- forced features -- is an interesting idea. Because many automakers view hybrid technology as a luxury item rather than a practical feature, they attempt to position hybrids upmarket by adding all sorts of standard luxury equipment and then charging an upmarket price. The UCS sees this as a major obstacle to mainstream adoption of hybrids.

From the study:

A look at recent hybrid sales (between January and April 2011) shows that the 10 highest-selling vehicles have a few things in common. First, nearly all have an EPA combined fuel economy rating above 30 miles per gallon (mpg); the exception is the Toyota Highlander Hybrid, which earns 28 mpg but has the highest fuel economy of any 7-passenger vehicle on the market. In addition, all 10 earn Environmental Improvement scores of 6 or better, and Hybrid Value scores ranging from "Good" to "Superior." Lastly, more than half of these hybrids have a Forced Features rating of "none" or "$." Automakers that want to improve their hybrid sales should learn from these observations and focus on maximizing fuel economy improvements at a fair price, without loading on the forced features.

I think they have a point, and I'd say a lot of frugal-minded Bankrate readers would agree. I don't see how the desire for heated leather seats or 18-inch alloy wheels correlates with a desire to get the most mileage out of a gallon of gas. Even more ironic, as is pointed out in the study, those same power-sucking, weight-adding features actually degrade mileage.

Maybe if your motives for wanting high mpg are purely environmental and altruistic, a hybrid car is a luxury, but even with gas as "low" as $3.50 per gallon, I'd bet a lot of people are willing to pay a little extra for hybrid technology because they simply have to drive a lot of miles and want to save a little money in the process. They're willing to make the trade of paying an extra $50 per month on an auto loan payment so they can save $100 per month at the gas pump, and they're betting gas will be going up over the five or six years they own their car.

The UCS report suggest that as the federal government rolls out ever-higher fuel economy standards, automakers will further democratize hybrid technology. For the sake of all you gas misers out there, I hope they're right.

What do you think? Is having hybrid technology in your car a luxury or a utilitarian gas-saving device?

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July 27, 2011 at 8:32 am

At the moment, hybrids ARE a luxury vehicle. Yes, if you buy at the right time and in the right state, you can get thousands off the price for buying a 'green' vehicle. However, you will then discover you're paying higher insurance than normal (as hybrids are expensive to fix), that your property tax (if you're unfortunate enough to pay that every year in your town) will be higher. While you do save on gas, down the road you will be paying thousands out of pocket for new batteries. There's also the pesky problem of hybrids with these batteries being a hazard if you're in an accident. Firefighters have to know where NOT to cut in order to avoid not getting a nasty shock from the batteries.

I'd love a hybrid to save gas. I just can't afford it. What's truly annoying is that 20-30 years ago, you could get cars with better mpg. Yes, they were more dangerous crash-wise, but why not rebuild those cars with safety features? Cars are transportations, not houses, although their price tag is rapidly approaching that!