Payoff for Efficient Cars Takes Years
By NICK BUNKLEY
DETROIT — Ed Moran’s new Toyota Prius was programmed by the dealer to make him feel good about his gas savings. A dashboard display compares the fuel consumption of the Prius and his 2001 Ford pickup truck.
“Every time I go to the store it will tell me how much money I saved,” said Mr. Moran, a horticulturist in Ames, Iowa.
Like more and more Americans, Mr. Moran is looking to a fuel-efficient car to help soften the financial blow of ever higher gas prices.
Shoppers have more options than ever to fight back, including hybrids, plug-ins, electric vehicles and “eco” or “super fuel economy” packages.
But opting for models that promise better mileage through new technologies does not necessarily save money, according to data compiled for The New York Times by TrueCar.com, an automotive research Web site.
Except for two hybrids, the Prius and Lincoln MKZ, and the diesel-powered Volkswagen Jetta TDI, the added cost of the fuel-efficient technologies is so high that it would take the average driver many years — in some cases more than a decade — to save money over comparable new models with conventional internal-combustion engines.
That is true at today’s pump prices, around $4, and also if gas were to climb to $5 a gallon, the data shows.
Gas would have to approach $8 a gallon before many of the cars could be expected to pay off in the six years an average person owns a car.
Analysts say the added cost of the new technologies is limiting the ability of fuel-efficient cars to gain broader appeal. Hybrid sales have surged more than 60 percent this year, but they still account for less than 3 percent of the total market. Plug-in cars represent a minuscule fraction of sales, with General Motors even halting production of the Chevrolet Volt in response to less demand than it expected.
“The point where a car can actually go after a mass-market audience is when the pricing starts making sense on paper,” said Jesse Toprak, vice president for market intelligence at TrueCar. “If they want these technologies to be mainstream, pricing still needs to come down.”
The Prius and Lincoln MKZ are likely to produce overall savings within two years versus similar-size gas-powered cars from the same brand, but other hybrids, despite ratings 8 to 12 miles per gallon better than conventional models, will cost more to buy and drive for at least five years.
The data assumes an average of 15,000 miles driven a year and a gas price of just under $4 a gallon.
If gas cost $5 a gallon, the TrueCar data estimates that the payback period for a hybrid Ford Fusion over the conventional Fusion would be six and a half years, compared with eight and a half years at $4. At $6 a gallon, the hybrid Toyota Camry, Hyundai Sonata and Kia Optima are likely to generate savings within four years.
So why do some buyers pay more for advanced technology that might not save them money? Many never do the math, analysts say, or they tend to overestimate how much the added miles per gallon translate into actual monetary savings. Some view the higher mileage as better for resale value, hoping to come out better on the back end.
“The price of the vehicle, you only pay it once and then soon forget about it,” Mr. Toprak said.
Others clearly view saving fuel and doing something better for the environment as their ultimate goals, regardless of cost. The Prius, for example, became a success in part because drivers wanted to drive — and be seen driving — a hybrid.
“Fuel economy has become a social attribute,” said Tom Turrentine, an anthropologist at the University of California, Davis, who has studied car buying habits and is the director of the university’s Plug-In Hybrid and Electric Vehicle Research Center. “People want to have good fuel economy because if they have poor fuel economy they might look stupid.”
The low price tag and high mileage rating of the new Prius C hatchback persuaded Mr. Moran, the horticulturist, to buy one in March.
He paid a little over $22,000 for the car, which is smaller and less expensive than the regular Prius, with an identical 50 miles-per-gallon rating. That is about the same price as a Toyota Camry sedan, which gets about 30 miles per gallon.
Mr. Moran, 34, knew his fuel savings would be overshadowed by his new monthly loan payment, but driving a hybrid just felt right. “I thought, ‘I try to save plants every day, so why am I not doing my part?’ ” he said.
Early in March, Toyota said that it had sold more Prius C cars in its first three days on the market than Chevrolet sold plug-in Volts and Nissan sold battery-powered Leafs in all of February. The statistic highlights that even within the fuel-efficient car market, hybrids have a big leg up on electric cars, which are far more expensive.
According to TrueCar, a buyer who chose the Leaf instead of a Nissan Versa would need to drive it for almost nine years at today’s gas prices or six years at $5 a gallon before the fuel savings outweighed the nearly $10,000 difference in price.
The Volt, which cost nearly $40,000 before a $7,500 federal tax credit, could take up to 27 years to pay off versus a Chevrolet Cruze, assuming it was regularly driven farther than its battery-only range allows. The payback time could drop to about eight years if gas cost $5 a gallon and the driver remained exclusively on battery power.
The Lundberg Survey, which tracks fuel prices, said in March that gas prices would need to reach $12.50 a gallon for the Volt to make sense purely on financial terms. It said the Leaf would be competitive with gas at $8.53 a gallon.
Still, in a recent survey by Consumer Reports, the most satisfied drivers owned Volts. The survey said 93 percent of Volt owners would definitely buy the car again — though there are only 12,000 of the cars on the road.
“If you provide consumers what they want, they won’t mind paying a premium to get it,” Mr. Toprak said.
Marcus Schuh, the general manager of Terry Lee Honda, a dealership near Indianapolis, said shoppers were not necessarily looking to save money when they shopped for a fuel-efficient car.
Many just want a vehicle that consumes less gas, and some are willing to pay a modest premium for a hybrid if they want to reduce their fuel use even more, he said.
“There’s probably a percentage that is aware of the cost and benefit,” Mr. Schuh said. “It’s about helping the environment and it’s a good feeling to do it.”
Right now, the biggest reason people are not buying many hybrids, he said, is that they are in short supply, because of production cuts caused by last year’s tsunami in Japan, where Honda makes all of its hybrids. So if someone comes in asking for a hybrid, Mr. Schuh can make the argument that their overall costs might be less by going with a conventional car.
The TrueCar data shows that upgrade packages like the “eco” trim level on Chevrolet’s car lineup generally take even longer to pay off than hybrids. Such upgrades cost less than a hybrid powertrain, but the increase in gas mileage is much smaller.
Even so, Matt Melliere, 25, decided in January that the Chevrolet Cruze Eco was the right car for him. At 42 miles per gallon in highway driving, it is twice as efficient as the Subaru WRX he had previously.
“The miles per gallon was definitely the driving factor,” said Mr. Melliere, who lives in St. Charles, Mo., and commutes 20 miles each way to his marketing job with an online retailer.
“Every day when gas goes up,” he said, “I feel better and better about my purchase."
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