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Toyota Prius: High gas mileage, low theft rate

(MoneyWatch) Not only do Toyota Prius hybrids save you money on gas, they are also less likely to be stolen. A new study by the National Insurance Crime Bureau shows that the Prius theft rate in 2008-2010 model years was one in 606 of those on the road vs. one in 78 for all cars.

Thieves likely are not attracted to the Prius because the complex hybrid parts are not much use to chop shop thieves who prefer widely interchangeable parts. "It could be that auto thieves are going to steal something for which there generally a market need for the parts," says Frank Scafidi, spokesman for the NICB. In a separate NICB report, the 1994 Honda Accord was the most stolen car in 2011 and the 1998 Honda Civic second. Parts from those cars fit into several model years and are thus valuable on the underground parts market.

An economic argument for hybrids

The low theft rate is one of two new arguments for the advantages of gas-electric hybrid cars despite their extra cost vs. all-gasoline counterparts. Hybrids like Prius (rated 51 MPG in the city, 48 on the highway) save money on gas but  take several years to offset the extra cost. But the government agency that compiles the official gas mileage ratings proposes that because of low auto loan rates and high gas prices, the addition to the monthly payment for a hybrid is more than offset by the savings on gas.

They have come up with a new online tool to help decide if paying the extra cost of a hybrid makes sense based on factors like fuel costs, the number of miles you drive each year and how long you plan to keep the car. It can make sense to compare the additional monthly payment for a hybrid with gas savings, argues spokesman Bo Saulsbury of the Oak Ridge National Laboratory, which runs the government web site.

He cites the example of the $39,970 Toyota Highlander SUV hybrid, rated at 28 MPG both in the city and on the highway vs. the $34,410 all-gasoline Highlander SE, rated 18 MPG city, 24 highway. With a 60-month loan at a 4.24 percent interest rate, the additional monthly payment would be $57 but the estimated monthly fuel savings would be $73. So you would be saving $16 a month on out-of-pocket costs. If you still owned the car after the loan was paid off, you would still be saving the full $73.