Hybrids may save you more money than you think

Toyota Prius Toyota Motor Sales

(MoneyWatch) The people who publish the official EPA ratings of gas mileage say that hybrids often don't get enough credit for the money they save vs. competing gas-only cars. To rectify that, they have set up a new hybrid savings calculator at the government's official fuel economy web site, fueleconomy.gov.

"Some stories compare hybrids, which are often equipped with more standard features, with base model gasoline vehicles, which may not be as well-equipped," say officials at the Oak Ridge National Laboratory, which manages the fuel economy web site. Making apples-to-apples comparisons, they come up with six hybrids where fuel savings pay off the higher initial cost in three years or less.

Two hybrids, the Lincoln MKZ and the Buick LaCrosse, are priced exactly the same as their gasoline counterparts, so they start saving you money on gas immediately. And with a combined city/highway rating of 39 MPG, the Lincoln hybrid would save its owner $1,230 a year with gas at $3.75 a gallon, the Oak Ridge specialists estimate.

However, even with this narrative, the government scientists seem to be undermining the best-known hybrid, the Toyota Prius, with a tricky comparison. On the government web site, the Prius is compared with the small-car Toyota Matrix hatchback, which has a list selling price that is $4,315 lower than the Prius. Thus even with the 50 MPG combined rating of the Prius, the payback period for gas savings is 4.7 years.

A better comparison would be with the mid-size Toyota Camry, even though the Camry has its own hybrid version. U.S. News, which ranks cars within a category after compiling reviews from the motor press, puts the Prius in the mid-size sedan category along with Camry, Honda Accord and Ford Fusion.

In that scenario, a well-equipped Prius with navigation and other amenities has a list price of $28,050, or $1,960 more than a gas-only Camry XLE. With the 50 MPG combined of the Prius vs. 28 for the Camry, the payback period would be only 2.2 years for an owner driving 15,000 miles a year.

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    Jerry Edgerton, author of Car Shopping Made Easy, has been covering the car beat since Detroit companies dominated the U.S. market. The former car columnist for Money magazine and Washington correspondent for Business Week, Edgerton specializes in finding the best deals on wheels and offering advice on making your car last.

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