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Is a hybrid vehicle worth the price?


2018 Honda Accord Hybrid
2018 Honda Accord Hybrid - Contributed

TORONTO — With more hybrid vehicles entering the market and prices gradually coming down, we’re hearing this one basic question more frequently: Is a hybrid worth it?

Whether you choose to spend the extra cash to buy a hybrid vehicle depends on many variables, but, for most drivers, the decision understandably comes down to cost.

We’re going to run through some basic hybrid math here so you can find out for yourself if a hybrid makes sense for the way you drive.

However, before we crunch some numbers, it’s worth noting that the answer to the “is a hybrid worth it” question isn’t simple.

You could also factor in the value of reducing carbon-dioxide emissions — and the smugness you get out of doing so — or the type of electricity generation in your area, or the cradle-to-grave emissions for a vehicle and its lithium-ion battery.

You could also try to put a price on the joy of driving a car that provides instant electric acceleration, or the added comfort of getting into a vehicle pre-warmed by mains electricity.

To keep this simple though, we’ll focus on the difference in purchase price between a traditional internal-combustion engine (ICE) vehicle and an equivalent hybrid, calculating how long it will take recoup the difference in fuel savings.

Your driving habits

You’ll need to know a few numbers going into this. The first is roughly how much of your driving takes place in the city versus the highway.

For testing purposes, city driving is considered stop-and-go traffic, with an average speed of 34 km/h and a top speed of 90 km/h.

The definition of highway driving includes highways and rural roads, with an average speed of 78 km/h and a top speed of 97 km/h.

Natural Resources Canada calculates the combined fuel consumption rating as 55 per cent city, 45 per cent highway.

Your city/highway split might be very different. Hybrids generally offer the biggest fuel savings during city driving.

The second thing to know is the price of gasoline where you live. As of May 2019, the average price of regular gas in Halifax is $1.26/litre, according to Statistics Canada. In Saint John, it’s $1.30/litre.

In Vancouver, it’s $1.69. In Edmonton, it’s $1.18.

The last number you’ll need to know is how many kilometres you drive per year. If you do 10,000 kilometres annually, it will take much longer to recoup the extra cost of a hybrid vehicle than if you drive 25,000 km every year.

Types of hybrids

 2019 Kia Niro PHEV - Bruce Benedict
2019 Kia Niro PHEV - Bruce Benedict

Not all hybrids are equal. Some rely much more on electric power than others.

Plug-in hybrids (PHEVs) have larger battery packs that can be recharged from an electrical outlet. When running in electric-only mode, PHEVs have no tailpipe emissions.

With plug-ins, your driving habits have a huge impact on the annual running cost. If you do mostly short trips (30-50 km) and have a place to plug-in overnight, a PHEV makes sense. You could go days, maybe weeks, without burning a drop of gasoline.

The estimates below don’t account for that kind of driving behaviour.

The calculation

The simplest formula for figuring out if a hybrid is worth it is to take the difference in purchase price and divide it by difference in annual fuel cost.

That’ll give you the number of years of driving it will take to recoup the extra up-front cost of a hybrid.

In short: Purchase Price Delta ¸ Annual Cost Delta = Years to recoup hybrid cost.

Natural Resources Canada’s (NRCan’s) online “fuel consumption ratings search tool” is a useful resource for comparing vehicles (https://fcr-ccc.nrcan-rncan.gc.ca/en/ ). It lets you input your own data for a more accurate cost estimate.

For the examples below, we’ll use the same assumptions as NRCan: 20,000 km/year, 55 per cent city, regular gas at $1.02/litre, and electricity at $0.13 per kWh.

Toyota Rav4

 2019 Toyota RAV4
2019 Toyota RAV4
  • The 2019 Toyota Rav4 hybrid AWD costs $32,090. The regular Rav4 AWD costs $30,690.
  • The purchase price difference is $1,400.
  • The hybrid will cost you $1,224 in fuel per year, while the regular Rav4 will cost $1,693. The annual cost difference is $469.
  • Still with us? So: 1,400¸ 469 = 2.99 years. After that time, the hybrid will be cheaper to own.

Honda Accord

2019 Honda Accord Hybrid
2019 Honda Accord Hybrid
  • The 2019 Accord Hybrid Touring costs $41,876 and $1,020/year in fuel.
  • The non-hybrid Touring trim costs $37,876 and $1,550/year.
  • In this case it would take about 7.5 years to recoup the difference.
  • If you live in Vancouver, where the price of gas is $1.32/litre, it would take 5.8 years.
  • Comparing the Hybrid to the Accord 2.0 Touring, which costs $40,876 and has a thirstier 2.0-litre engine, you’ll recoup the extra cost of the hybrid in 1.2 years.

Kia Niro and the trouble with estimating phev cost

 2019 Kia Niro PHEV - Bruce Benedict
2019 Kia Niro PHEV - Bruce Benedict

The base Kia Niro hybrid costs $938/year in fuel. The Kia Sportage SUV, in front-wheel drive trim, costs $1,877/year to keep topped up. Since the purchase price difference is only $200, the Niro hybrid will become cheaper after just a couple months.

The Niro is also available as a plug-in hybrid (PHEV) which costs $33,965 and $753/year in gas and electricity. Compared that to $29,695 and $979/year for a similarly-equipped Niro hybrid. Unless you drive the PHEV for over 17 years, you won’t recover the extra cost. That sounds pretty abysmal for the PHEV, but it could be misleading.

NRCan’s annual cost estimate, which we’re using here, could be way off depending on how you drive. If you mostly take short trips and deplete the battery before switching on the gas engine, you could recover the cost much faster. Alternatively, if you never plug the PHEV in, you might never recover the extra cost.

Keep in mind also the NRCan estimate assumes electricity at $0.13/kWh, but if you charge overnight — as most people do — the price in Ontario is currently half that, $0.065/kWh.

To complicate matters even further, different PHEVs use their gas and electric motors differently, which makes comparison difficult. But, now we’re getting deep into the weeds.

Is it worth it?

If you didn’t want to do all that math, sorry, there’s no hard and fast rule here. As you can see, the length of time it takes for any hybrid to recoup its extra cost varies wildly depending on the price of gas where you live, how far and where you drive.

The price premium for hybrids varies significantly from brand to brand and model to model. If you live in Quebec or British Columbia, the government offers significant rebates on PHEVs, which will often tip the cost calculation in favour of greener options.

You really need to do your homework, but doing so could potentially save you hundreds or thousands of dollars over the life of your next vehicle.

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