Some Fuel-Efficient Cars Can Take Years To Pay For Themselves

Sales of cars powered by diesel and hybrid-electric engines are on the rise, as each month of 2011 has brought higher fuel prices than any time in 2010. But for some drivers, making the switch to something that doesn't run on gasoline alone may not save them as much money in the short term as they would like.

The automotive consumer website Edmunds.com compared several diesel and hybrid powered cars to their gasoline counterparts to see just how long it would take to reach the break-even point. 

That's the point where the fuel saved makes up for the extra money spent on the most efficient model. 

"People really, unfortunately, don't make extremely informed decisions — particularly during periods like this, when gas prices have shot up very quickly."

 Phillip Reed is the Senior Consumer Advice Editor for Edmunds.  He says drivers often don't consider the break-even point before they buy.

"And then they stand there at the gas pump and say 'wow, I'm really saving money now, because this tank was $45 and my last tank was $65.'  That's a relatively small savings when you're looking at offsetting a four- or five-thousand dollar premium that it cost them to get in the vehicle."

It doesn't always cost that much to choose a hybrid or diesel over a gasoline car.  But the difference isn't small.  Take, for instance, the Volkswagen Jetta TDI.  It retails for about $2,000 more than a comparably equipped Jetta that runs on petrol. Edmunds estimates that it could take as long as 14 years for the more efficient diesel to cover the difference.  That doesn't  matter much to one diesel convert who I found in the parking lot of this radio station.

"My name's Capella Tucker, I'm Program Director of News at KUHF."

So, yeah, she's one of my bosses. But she's part of this story because of what she drives — a VW Jetta TDI Sportwagen. 

(sound of car starting)

She bought it last year to replace the family's 15-year-old Nissan Altima.

"I didn't even look at the price tag for the gas variety.  I was just so hung up on miles-per-gallon that I wasn't really doing that kind of comparison."

Tucker says she plans to drive the wheels off her Jetta.  And that's partly why diesels cost more.  They're built to last longer than gasoline engines.  They also require more sophisticated emissions control systems. 

Hybrids also cost more, but for different reasons.  They contain two separate powertrains.  They're also built in lower numbers.  But prices have come down in recent years.  And Edmunds' Phillip Reed says some hybrids reach the break-even point in a reasonable amount of time.

"If you're able to get a good deal on a Prius right now, which would be probably around sticker price, depending on the price of gas, it might begin to pay itself back in as little as two years."

But Hybrids made in Japan are expected to become more expensive as inventories shrink, because of the tsunami.  Reed says there are many more options today than just 3 years ago for shoppers who want upwards of 40 miles per gallon on the highway but don't want to pay extra for a diesel or hybrid.

 

First aired March 21, 2011.
 

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David Pitman

Local Host, Morning Edition

The one question David hears most often isn't "What is it like to work for an NPR member station?" or "Have you ever met Terry Gross?" (he has)...