Hybrid Hysteria

Gas prices still have you down? Thought about trading in your car for something that gets better mileage? Maybe you’re environmentally conscious and have considered getting rid of your car altogether. Wherever you fit in, a hybrid may be the answer for you.

Introduced to the U.S. in 1997, hybrids use both a gasoline-powered engine and an electric motor. Once the car of choice among environmentally conscious consumers, hybrids are gaining in popularity among mainstream car buyers. Fans of the HBO series Curb Your Enthusiasm are already familiar with the popular Toyota Prius. Other best-selling models include the Honda Insight and DaimlerChrysler’s Dodge Ram hybrid pick-up, a dream for contractors.

The sporty Prius was the fastest-selling hybrid last year, spending an average of two days on dealers’ lots. Anthony Pratt, senior manager of global forecasting for J.D. Power and Associates, expects the Prius to take 1.6% of the market, selling 270,000 to 280,000 units.

But as auto manufacturers rush to increase output, are these gas-electric vehicles really worth it? The most obvious benefits are fuel economy and efficiency. Hybrids release lower tailpipe emissions and boast better gas mileage. Moreover, some insurance carriers perceive hybrid owners as responsible and valuable customers. St. Paul Travelers Insurance, for instance, offers nationwide discounts to all hybrid customers, and Farmers Insurance Group offers discounts to California residents who own hybrid or alternative-fuel vehicles. According to auto research firm R.L. Polk & Co., California boasts over 25,000 registered hybrid owners, more than any other state.

The roads are also becoming more inviting to hybrids. In some states, hybrid drivers can access carpool lanes regardless of the number of passengers. “State governments assume hybrid owners are more responsible, safer drivers,” says Jeff Fortson, an Atlanta-based automotive consultant, facilitator, and editor of www.jeffcars.com. Also, under the Energy Tax Incentives Act of 2005, individuals who own clean-fuel or alternative-fuel vehicles may qualify for a one-time tax break (see www.irs.gov).

But for all the benefits of owning a hybrid, many are wondering just how economical these environmentally friendly cars are. Less trips to the gas pump should translate into more money in your wallet. But the typical hybrid costs $3,000 more than non-hybrid vehicles ($5,000 to $6,000 more for hybrid versions of luxury vehicles and SUVs). To recover the extra cost, consumers would have to save $400 to $600 a year in gas for a period of eight years.

A self-recharging battery suggests hybrids require less maintenance than conventional vehicles. Yet, when there are mechanical issues, owners fare better by taking their cars to a dealer for service, as local mechanics are often less knowledgeable about the electrical underpinnings of hybrids. Some auto manufacturers, however, offer lengthier warranties (80,000 to 100,000 miles) on their hybrids’ emission components and battery pack, compared to the traditional three-year/36,000 mile warranty.

Many car buyers base decisions largely on a car’s performance and the Environmental Protection Agency’s calculations for gas mileage. Miles per gallon estimates for city driving are sometimes overestimated by as much as 30% for hybrids. So, buyers expecting