Hybrids Costing The Same As Gas Cars (Or Close)

Last Updated Jul 27, 2010 10:08 AM EDT

Paying more for gas-electric hybrid cars has deterred some people who care as much about the green in their pockets as the green in their politics. Hybrid selling prices have been up to $6,000 more than their gas-only siblings, so their fuel savings could take many years to make up the difference. But now Ford has announced that its 2011 Lincoln MKZ hybrid sedan, at $35,180, will cost exactly the same as its standard gas MKZ. A harbinger of hybrid pricing ahead?

Could be. Auto companies have mixed motivations, though. Cutting hybrid prices could hurt their profits, but stronger hybrid sales would help them meet federal fuel standards requiring each company's fleet to average 35.5 mpg by 2016. (See What You'll be Driving by 2016.)

"Hybrids typically have had a premium because it was new technology," says Jessica Caldwell of Edmunds.com. But equal hybrid pricing, if it caught on, could put a lot more drivers in the hybrid seats, she says. "Why purchase a mainstream car when you can buy a hybrid at the same price with better fuel mileage?"

Some high-end luxury cars like the Mercedes-Benz S class already are pushing their hybrids with price incentives. The Mercedes gas model has a typical selling price of $89,254, according to Edmunds.com, while the hybrid version sells for $84,592. And some analysts believe that luxury brands like Lincoln--where built-in profits are higher--are likelier to adopt equal pricing for hybrids than less expensive ones are.

More typical, however, is the Mercury Mariner hybrid, selling at an average of $29,402 vs. $23,302 for the gas version. Paying off that $6,100 difference in gas savings would take 14.4 years according to Edmunds, far longer than almost anyone is likely to own the SUV.

But the differential is much slimmer on some other hybrids. You might want to take a look at the following four models, where the hybrid will pay for itself in five years or less. Edmunds.com did these calculations based on a recent national average gas price of $2.72 per gallon. If gas rose to $4, all the payback periods would shorten noticeably.

Cadillac Escalade-With an average selling price at $67,140, or just $148 more than the gas model, the hybrid Escalade takes less than three months to pay back its gas savings with 20 mpg city/21 highway (vs. 15 city/22 highway for the gas model). A favorite of rappers and pro athletes, Escalade doesn't fit the usual green car image. But flash-loving owners could save a little in gas with the hybrid without giving up on style.

Toyota Camry-Toyota's mainstream, mid-size hybrid sedan costs only $515 more than its gas counterpart at an average selling price of $25,014. Toyota, of course, was first with mass hybrid technology and it continues to sell the most hybrids, despite its sudden acceleration recalls. Toyota has now installed brake override in its cars--so the car will stop even if the engine is still racing. The payback is just 1.4 years with the Camry hybrid's 33 mpg city/34 highway ratings (vs. 22 city/32 highway for gas-only).

Toyota Prius-The most identifiable hybrid, the Prius also shows that really high mileage can offset a sizable cost differential compared to the similar-sized gas Camry. Prius has an average selling price of $22,918-or $1,994 more than the gas Camry, but its mileage rating is a stunning 51 mpg in the city, 48 on the highway. (Hybrids have a special advantage in city driving, where they can run at low speeds on the electric engine only with the gas motor turned off; Prius is especially effective at doing this.) The payback period vs. the Camry (22 city/32 highway) is 2.6 years.

Honda Insight-A hybrid-only like the Prius, the Insight compares in size and price range with the compact Honda Civic gas model. It sells at an average $19,222 or $1,733 more than the Civic. With mileage rated at an impressive 40 mpg city/43 highway, the Insight has a payback period on gas savings of 4.1 years vs. the Civic (19 city/27 highway).

Photos courtesy of the manufacturers

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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.