These days with gas prices hovering anywhere from the mid $3’s to almost $4 a gallon in peak season, many people have understandably started coveting fuel-efficient hybrid cars which boast MPG ratings in the 40-50 MPG range.  If you head to your nearest car dealership or auto center you will likely see many of these vehicles prominently displayed and their selling points consistently emphasized–gas mileage, lower emissions, eco-friendliness.  But, what is the bottom line with these models?  They may be fuel efficient, but does that efficiency translate to saving you money?  And what about car repair costs?

Perhaps surprisingly, the answer to the first question is mostly ‘no’ (or at least, ‘not for a long time’).  Take the most popular hybrid car currently on the market, the Toyota Prius, for example.  The 2012 Toyota Prius gets a combined (city/highway) 50 MPG rating from the EPA, which is certainly no slouch compared to other vehicles (nearly double the average fuel efficiency of vehicles on the road today).  But, the hybrid drive-train and advanced technology also means that it commands a premium over conventional gasoline vehicles.  The 2012 model has a base price of $24,000.  If you have a car that you can sell or trade-in and get $10,000 for, you are spending $14,000 for the new Prius.  Assuming gas prices that average $4 over the lifetime of the vehicle and putting the US average number of miles on the car (1,123/month or 13,476/year), it would take about 9 years for you to recoup your costs and start seeing savings.  So, buying a new hybrid just for the fuel efficiency savings is probably not the smartest move unless you are going to be holding on to it for a long time.

The Toyota Prius is the most popular hybrid in the US. (Prius 2010 by Paul Garland)

Oh yeah, and what about the car repair costs?  Is it more expensive to maintain a hybrid car?  Again, let’s use the example of the Toyota Prius.  Are you going to be hit with huge maintenance costs for repair on your new hybrid?  Actually, the answer is again (and perhaps also surprisingly) ‘no’.  Regular maintenance costs on a hybrid vehicle are pretty much identical to conventional gas engine vehicles, so you don’t have to worry about your car repair costs going through the roof, for the most part.  In fact, the maintenance costs can even be a bit lower than on cars with conventional gasoline engines simply due to the fact that the electric engine runs the car part of the time and saves the gasoline engine from having to do the work and suffer additional ‘wear and tear’.

Although normal maintenance costs may not be much higher (and could even be slightly lower), one thing to be wary of is that if you keep your Prius long enough for the warranty to run out and then something goes wrong with the hybrid system, you could be shelling out some big bucks for your car repair.

So, next time you decide to do some shopping and head to your nearest auto center or dealership, just keep in mind that even though that hybrid vehicle may have that new eco-friendly smell, it probably isn’t a smart decision to buy the car simply as a cost-saving measure.  That doesn’t mean that the ‘green’ bragging rights won’t be enough to sway you, though.