Friday, February 27, 2009

Saving Money, Saving Fuel: Is the Hybrid Worth It?

Car buying - you cringe just at the thought of it. The tedious search for safety testing results and drivability reviews is at hand, not to mention the new set of payments that will go along with this vehicle. This is the point at which to decide to go new or used. Both have their benefits and downsides, and their balance varies depending on the situation. Of course, those tasks exclude the other decisions inherent in the process: Style of vehicle (sedan, SUV, crossover), engine size (the 4-cylinder is efficient, but the 6-cylinder has a great kick), color, and packages (GPS and audio system or just the audio, but what about the moonroof?). Recently, a new option is under consideration by the average car buyer: hybrid or conventional? At first glance, the appeal of a hybrid is overwhelming; the improved fuel economy, partial silent operation, and green appearance all make it a difficult treat to resist. However, with all the hoopla around hybrids, seeing through the marketing spectacle is important to make an informed decision on whether they are a beneficial option for you. Indeed, the impact on your wallet may actually be higher if you purchase a hybrid!

Let’s get a few things out of the way. First, hybrids don’t automatically mean amazing gas mileage. Yes, they will be better, often significantly so, than their equivalent conventional model, but all too commonly, the difference is not nearly large enough to expect to pay less in the long run. I recently purchased a new vehicle, and was torn between two sedans, one was a hybrid, and the other was a normal 4-cylinder. With the hybrid, research found that I should expect an average of 35 MPG for my driving style (40% city, 60% highway). On the other hand, the conventional vehicle (which I drive now) has demonstrated an average of slightly above 28 MPG, based upon the on-board computer. Now, I’m all for reducing our usage of oil, but was the hybrid worth it? Looking into the costs, I discovered quite a sticker shock - the hybrid was nearly $8,000 more! Assuming I drive 10,000 miles a year, at 28 MPG, the conventional engine burns 357 gallons of gasoline. At $2.00 a gallon, the annual fuel cost is $714. With the hybrid, getting 35 MPG, I’d have used 285 gallons, resulting in an annual fuel cost of $571. Therefore, the hybrid would only save me $143 annually in fuel costs. At this rate, to pay off the $8,000 premium, I’d have to drive for 55 years (or hope fuel prices rise substantially)! Ignoring the 10-year lifetime of the batteries, the payoff simply was not there.

In my case, the decision was simple. The costs were simply too high. To partially offset the diminished mileage between my vehicle and the hybrid, I practice the standard efficient driving techniques, driving under 70 on the highways, accelerating and braking at moderate speeds, and coasting, instead of driving, towards red lights, just to name a few. Only a few days ago, I found myself on a local road with a posted speed limit of 50 MPH. Setting the cruise control to 53 MPH, I took a look at the real-time fuel consumption meter, and then did a double-take. The car was consistently getting over 39 MPG! This non-hybrid vehicle was performing better than the hybrid equivalent, and all it took was careful and intelligent driving.

The point to drive home (pun intended) here is not that hybrids are bad or a poor financial decision, rather, their usefulness is extremely dependent on your normal driving patterns. Consider a hybrid when the price variance is less than a few thousand, you tend to drive mostly in the city (hybrid mileage is opposite conventional cars, the city range tends to be higher), and the difference in mileage is significant. Also, this entire situation assumes a new car purchase with no leasing.

Joseph Winn is the President/CEO of GreenProfit Solutions, Inc. which assists businesses in becoming environmentally responsible. You may view their website at or e-mail Joseph at [email protected] .

Wednesday, February 4, 2009

New or Used Car - Which is Greener?

As much as you try, bicycling and public transportation just won’t cut it. Perhaps your home is far from a transit hub, or you simply live in a region where public transportation is ineffective. Bicycles are out of the question for any length of trip because your bike lanes are approximately 12 inch strips on the right side of the road (welcome to my city). Even carpooling, while beneficial for certain destinations, cannot always assist in getting groceries and other necessities. So, as green as you strive to be, there’s no way around having a car.

Do not despair! There are many options available that can help minimize your impacts. The first decision should go without saying, but with marketing messages coming from all angles, rational thought can be swayed by its influence. Most simply, buy the largest vehicle you need, yet the smallest you can manage. While that new 7-seater with half-ton pickup bed seems like a great idea for transporting landscaping supplies concurrently with the soccer team, you have to ask yourself; will the majority of this vehicle’s use be embracing its many features? If not, you can likely look to a smaller, more efficient, and cheaper mode of transportation.

Now that you have identified the class of vehicle, it’s time to decide between new versus pre-owned. Unfortunately, from an environmental standpoint, there is little agreement amongst researchers on which is the “greener” choice. While an older, inefficient vehicle is obviously less desired than a new and extremely efficient hybrid or compact car, further questions arise on the fate of the original one and energy/resources used for the construction of the new vehicle. Without delving into conjecture and independent statistics, leave it at this: If you absolutely need a car, pursue the best value for the dollar over its lifetime, including both new and used in your consideration.

Use the EPA’s Green Vehicle Guide to learn about the overall emissions and fuel usage from a variety of vehicles, including your own to use as a baseline. While you may not see a direct impact on your wallet from reduced emission levels, you are making a choice that benefits everyone, at no additional cost to yourself. As an example, an EPA SmartWay or higher rated vehicle is so clean, it would have to be driven many thousands of miles to equal the air pollution generated by running a lawn mower for one hour (Of course, this raises many valid questions about the lawn mower). In addition, residents of certain states may purchase vehicles with a Partial Zero Emission Vehicle (PZEV) rating, nearly the same standard hybrids such as the Civic and Prius are required to meet. The tailpipe emissions of these cars are often cleaner than the ambient air in your own city! Don’t take that as an endorsement to breathe through your car’s exhaust, but understand the improvements being made on vehicle emissions.

One final note: In 2008, the EPA changed their MPG reporting standards. This means that vehicles of model year 2008 or later are using the new numbers, however, 2007 and earlier models are based on a separate calculation. When shopping for used cars, it may appear that an older model achieves substantially better fuel economy than the new model, but this difference is more than likely attributed to the changed reporting. Why was this done? To confuse the consumers in an already stressful situation? No, rather, the new fuel economy standards should better reflect the normal usage of a vehicle (A/C on more often, driving at faster highway speeds, etc.). What does this all mean to you, the consumer? Finally, the numbers you see on the sticker are likely what you will see when driving. On the Green Vehicle Guide mentioned earlier, the EPA has posted adjusted MPG numbers for some older model year vehicles for appropriate comparison.

Now if only they would help decide between the hardtop and convertible...

Joseph Winn is the President/CEO of GreenProfit Solutions, Inc. which assists businesses in becoming environmentally responsible. You may view their website at or e-mail Joseph at [email protected] .