About · Press · Contact · Write For Us · Top Personal Finance Blogs
Featured In:

Hybrid Cars Pros and Cons – Benefits & Problems

By Jason Steele

hybrid car mountainsMy wife and I thought we were doing well with our Subaru wagons since we had avoided the purchase of a gas guzzling SUV. Our “Subies” are fun to drive, hold lots of stuff, and usually see about 22 miles to the gallon.

Nevertheless, our Outback was starting to get up there in miles and was generating repair bills that were uncharacteristic for a Subaru. Being fascinated with hybrid technology, we finally decided to take the plunge and replace the old Outback with a newer hybrid.

We carefully weighed the arguments for buying a new vs. used car. We realized there weren’t any reasonably equipped new hybrids for less than $20,000, so we settled on a loaded 2007 Prius in pristine condition. Here is what we learned.

Benefits of Hybrid Cars

1. Hybrid Cars Show You How to Drive Efficiently
Just like a Jeep is in its element when driven off-road, and a Ferrari likes to be driven like a race car, a hybrid desperately wants to be driven efficiently. Our Toyota Prius, like most hybrids, has a display that shows our present mileage as well as average miles per gallon. It even tells us how much energy we recoup with the brakes.

All cars get better mileage when you accelerate and brake gently. But with a hybrid, you can see it, especially when you accelerate gradually enough so that only the electric engine is used. Normally I love to drive fast, but I’ve discovered myself unexpectedly enjoying the challenge of driving efficiently.

2. You Can Beat the EPA Mileage Estimates
Our goal was to double our observed fuel economy from the 22 mpg we had been getting with the Subaru. While we would have been happy with 44 mpg, or even the EPA rating of 48 mpg in the city, we were astonished to regularly see our fuel efficiency in the mid 50s. We credit efficient driving, aided by the Prius display, as the key to beating the EPA mileage estimates.

3. Hybrids Love the City
Hybrids are unique in that their EPA mileage ratings are actually higher in the city than they are on the highway. Our Prius is perfectly suited to my wife’s daily commute in stop and go traffic. Every time you stop, it generates more electricity which can then be used at lower speeds, or for accelerating quickly. It is in town where we see our mileage jump above 50 mpg.

4. Hybrids Have Multi-Engine Power
As a pilot with a sport pilot license, I appreciate the difference between a single engine airplane and the power of a multi-engine craft. The Prius is no hot rod, but, unlike a Ferrari, it actually comes with two engines. Its small gasoline engine is complemented by a powerful electric engine. Electric engines produce all of their torque from 0 rpm (revolutions per minute), a feature that allows the Prius to really scoot through an intersection from a stop. It is kind of like the snap you feel in your wrist when you operate a powerful electric hand tool.

5. It’s Eerily Quiet
Starting this car is about as much of an event as turning on a light switch. When the car begins to move, it is so silent that you are confused into thinking it is rolling downhill by itself. This is because the gasoline engine isn’t running and the electric engine is noiseless.

6. The Car Stays Warm
Mechanics will tell you that when you start an engine cold, it is harder to crank and produces more engine wear than when you start one that’s already been warmed up. In researching the Prius, I learned that it prevents cold starts by storing coolant in the equivalent of a thermos. This system keeps the fluid warm for up to three days. We are looking forward to enjoying easy starts and instant heat next winter.

7. No Emissions Tests Required
When I inquired about registering my car, I was told that a hybrid does not need an emissions test to be registered. Since your state’s laws may differ from those here in Denver, Colorado, check with your local DMV to see if an emissions or other test is required for registration.

8. Durability
One of the big myths out there is that the components of a hybrid will wear out and be costly to replace. Consumer Reports recently tested a 2001 Prius with over 200,000 miles; they found it still performed nearly identically to the 2001 Prius they tested new, and the hybrid battery was working fine.

9. Don’t Worry about the Battery
Every time I mentioned that I was buying a hybrid, I was warned about the battery failing. There is a popular myth that the battery is unreliable and a replacement is shockingly expensive. Consumer Reports notes that Toyota sells replacement batteries for $2,300 to $2,600. Practically speaking, if you had to replace a battery on a 10-year-old hybrid, you could pay about $500 for one from a salvage yard, just like you could if you had to replace any major component on an older car.

With that said, Toyota’s hybrid batteries and all other hybrid specific parts normally have a warranty of eight years or 100,000 miles. In California, the warranty is 150,000 miles. Moreover, there are numerous reports of the Prius being driven over 200,000 miles on the original battery. Given the strong warranty and consumer reports, I am confident we will never have to replace our hybrid battery.

10. Expect Less Maintenance
One of the neat things about a hybrid is that the gas engine is not running when you are stopped or driving slowly. It is amazing how often that happens in city driving. The result is that you are putting less wear on your engine. For this reason, Toyota only recommends oil changes every 5,000 miles, unlike my Subaru which specifies oil changes every 3,000 miles.

Its brakes should last longer too. Unless you have to brake suddenly, a hybrid regenerates electricity with a regenerative brake instead of applying the standard brakes. Since you could drive around all day without hardly using the conventional brakes, you can expect your brakes to need service far less often than a non-hybrid would. When the Prius was used in taxi fleets, it demonstrated less of a need for brake maintenance than its non-hybrid counterparts.

toyota prius silver

Problems with Hybrid Cars

1. Rising Gas Prices Equals Rising Hybrid Prices
We knew we had to pay a bit more for our used Prius due to gas prices rising. There weren’t many hybrids on the market, and they were selling fast. Some sellers were even trying to get a ridiculous premium by advertising their used cars for almost what a new one would cost! However, unless gas prices plummet and stay low for a long time, we feel we will largely make up our purchase premium when it comes time to sell our car.

2. Lower Highway Mileage
You won’t find me driving my Prius on the highway in the right lane at 50 miles per hour; I can only take the efficiency thing so far. When driven at the speed of most highway traffic, you can expect mileage in the mid to lower 40s. This is great, but there are compact cars and diesels that can achieve this kind of efficiency at highway speeds.

3. Not All Hybrids Are Equal
We also considered the very similar looking Honda Insight, but we were turned off by the fact that it is not a full hybrid, but rather a “mild hybrid.” Its gasoline engine shuts off when the car stops and it cannot run on its electric motor alone. It does not receive the fuel economy ratings of the Prius, and we were shocked to discover that its heat and air conditioning systems do not operate when the gasoline engine stops. That might be acceptable in a temperate climate, but it’s not acceptable in Colorado. A mild hybrid might get better fuel economy than a conventional car, but it won’t ever live up to the promise of a true hybrid.

4. Few Third Row Hybrids
We really wanted a larger vehicle with third row seating, but there is currently only one choice on the market. Toyota makes their Highlander Hybrid SUV with a third seat, but it is a huge vehicle with relatively poor mileage for a hybrid. Toyota recently announced they are coming out with a larger version of the Prius, but they will not offer a third row of seating in the version they plan to export to the United States.

5. Weak 12 Volt Battery
We were most surprised to discover that our Prius actually has a conventional 12 Volt battery just like any other car, in addition to the larger high voltage battery. This smaller battery provides power to the accessories, and like any other car, the Prius will need a jump start if this battery is drained. We accidentally left an interior light on overnight and couldn’t start the car in the morning – it turns out that accidentally draining the conventional battery is a common problem. Many Prius owners buy an aftermarket battery for $180 when the original one finally gives out, as the aftermarket version is reported to last much longer than the standard model Toyota uses.

Final Word

Through careful research, I was able to dispel many of the frightening myths going around about hybrid ownership. At the same time, we have no illusion that our Prius will always be perfectly reliable and maintenance free during the years we own it. What we do have is the reasonable belief, based on hard evidence, that this vehicle will be at least as reliable as a standard car while delivering more than twice the fuel economy of our Subaru.

So far, we are extremely satisfied with our purchase. Until the day we buy a full electric car, it is difficult to imagine there will be a time when at least one of our cars is not a hybrid.

Do you own a hybrid car? What has your experience been like?

(photo credit: Shutterstock)

Jason Steele
Jason has been writing about personal finance, travel, and other topics on blogs across the Internet. When he is not writing, he has a career in information technology and is also a commercially rated pilot. Jason lives in Colorado with his wife and young daughter where he enjoys parenting, cycling, and other extreme sports.

Related Articles

  • http://www.pfsdebtrelief.com Stephan

    I cant believe the fact that batteries only last 80k. thats ridiculous and i had never even thought about this extra cost. most cars last a lot longer than 80k, so someone is going to have to replace that, which basically negates any and all savings you had from better gas mileage.

    • Allen

      My daughter owned (note past tense) a hybrid. The batter needed replacement at 5.5 years and 82,000 miles the cost quoted was $4000. Maybe it was her driving style but although it did get better gas mileage than her sisters non-hybrid of the same model it never met the MPG it was supposed to. She was never able to save enough on gas to make up the initial cost difference. Bottom line like every other ‘Green’ I’ve seen except LED lights (they will last long enough to be worth the added expense) you can go green or you can save money. But you can’t do both! Not right now.

    • Allen

      My daughter owned (note past tense) a hybrid. The batter needed replacement at 5.5 years and 82,000 miles the cost quoted was $4000. Maybe it was her driving style but although it did get better gas mileage than her sisters non-hybrid of the same model it never met the MPG it was supposed to. She was never able to save enough on gas to make up the initial cost difference. Bottom line like every other ‘Green’ I’ve seen except LED lights (they will last long enough to be worth the added expense) you can go green or you can save money. But you can’t do both! Not right now.

    • Mike

      On the Prius, the warranty for the battery/charging system is for 8 yrs./100,000 miles. In the unlikely event that the batteries, for some reason, failed at 80,000 miles (and were less than 8 yrs. old), they would be covered under warranty, and wouldn’t cost you anything.

  • Scott

    It doesn’t appear that much research went into this. Toyota has a battery Q&A available (here: http://www.toyota.com/html/hybridsynergyview/2006/fall/battery.html).

    “Q: How long do the high-voltage batteries last?

    GS: We designed them to last for the life of the vehicle. We’re aware of owners who have racked up a quarter-million miles without replacing the batteries.

    Q: What would it cost to replace a complete battery pack?

    GS: Less than $3000, plus labor.”

    That answer is significantly different from the 80K mile, $5K-8K figures in this article.

    Then there’s this guy: http://www.hybridcars.com/high-road/how-long-do-hybrid-batteries-last.html
    He put about 200,000 miles on a Prius (using it as a cab) in 25 months.

    Additionally, you don’t take into account any savings besides the gas. You also have less wear on the brakes, for instance, because they’re used less. (Regenerative “braking” doesn’t actually use the brakes all of the time.)

    • Drew

      Scott,

      My take here is that the article and your comments both have some validity. Of COURSE toyota is going to talk up the hybrid as though it’s amazing and probably exaggerate some of the qualities.

      But there are other sources that would say otherwise. For example, http://ask.cars.com/2007/10/prius-battery.html says that hybrids last 80k-100k miles.

      What I have personally heard is that it’s not worth the premium you need to pay for hybrids to buy one (from a pure financial perspective).

      Drew

      • Mike

        If you read that article more carefully, you’ll notice that it says that the WARRANTIES for the hybrid system components (including the batteries) typically last for 8 yrs./100,000 miles, not that the hybrids themselves only last that long.

  • Scott

    Actually, the link you posted says that “hybrid component warranties — which includes coverage of the battery — usually last for eight years or 80,000 to 100,000 miles”.

    The warranty, not the actual battery. I was simply pointing out that, in fact, they tend to last longer. Most things last longer than the warranty. If they didn’t, the company wouldn’t be willing to offer the warranty.

  • http://lsminsurance.ca Lorne M.

    Well, I think one of the main problems of hybrids is that they often have higher fuel consumption than similar diesel cars and are usually more expensive. But let’s see what several recently announced hybrid-diesel engines are going to offer.

    • Rbarney1

      I don’t suppose you have seen the price of diesel compared to regular unleaded gas….

  • http://www.yourfinances101.com/blog David/yourfinances101

    They’re still too new for me to take the plunge, however, long-term Iam sure they will be a viable option.

    And I bet they’ll be aroud for a long time

    • Bayman

      “They’re still too new for me to take the plunge”

      The Prius is now 17 years old. How new do you want it?

  • http://obsessedanalytic.com Ryan @ ObsessedAnalytic

    Yea, hybrids aren’t a great way to save money yet but there is potential. I think one big potential savings with hybrid is the ability to drive thousands of miles without refueling. Stopping for gas is a minor but constant inconvenience of owning a car.

    My thoughts on deprecation including with cars

  • john M

    I have a 2007 Toyota Camry Hybrid, and I had the same worries before I bought it as the article points out. But I have 50,000 miles on it, and have had no problems other than the Toyota recalls. No problems with the motor or drivetrain at all. I think it freaks people out to have the engine shut off at a stoplight, but the car always pulls away on the green light, whether the engine is on or just the electric motor working. In California, the battery is guaranteed for 150,000 miles or 10 years. Plus the tax credits I got when I bought the car. The brake pads are original, the regenerative braking system saving wear on these parts. The car is big enough to install a roof rack for our tandem bicycle, and have taken the bike on long vacations without problems (the extra wind drag does reduce mpg to standard Camry figures though). So I am glad I bought it- it gets about 40 mpg in normal use. The article didn’t mention the biggest concern with hybrids- that if you use it for only 1 or 2 miles a day, the car will get the same mileage as a standard Camry ! So it is not cost effective for short trips. Use a bicycle for grocery shopping, it is easier anyway.

  • Anonymous

    I have a 2009 Toyota Prius and have had no problems at all. Unlike what this author says, I get over 50 mpg on the highway usually. The only time this is not true is when the highway route has more hills up than down. Just about always, this is hardly ever a factor since the return route will be different. I use this mostly around town in the Washington, DC area and it is the greatest car to use here, especially when traffic is very heavy. I agree it gets the best mileage when there is a lot of stop and go traffic at slow speeds. It will also get great highway mpg when the road is flat, like in Florida. Our other car is a Subaru Forester which gets terrible mpg, compared to the Prius, especially when traffic is heavy. We never drive the Forester during rush hour.

  • Ojaijohnny

    I have 2002 Prius. I loved it until I was recently run into by a Ford Explorer. The blue book was $4500 before it was damaged. The repair estimate was $4300 so the insurance company said repair it. When I picked it up, the car looked great except for the visual display signaling not to drive it. It went directly to Toyota and was diagnosed with HV battery failure. Price to repair $6000 with taxes. Insurance company denied claim saying failure was not related to colision. How do you economically dispose of a hybrid vehicle that is not cost effective to repair and can not be safely driven?

    • Bayman

      Your Prius is 10 years old. How much would it cost to replace a a transmission on a 10 year old car? Also newer batteries are far superior to those of 10 years ago. Then when you run it it cost far less in mpg.

    • Luis Reyes

      Too bad you got in your accident. Did you enjoy driving it before the accident? Just seems like tough luck.
      Personally, I Would never buy anything but a Prius! It’s a good value all around (not just sticker price)…I fill it up once a month for $15 (thanks Gas Buddy)… It costs $25/month for insurance (thanks Insurance Panda)… It has excellent resale value. And is cheaper to buy than a lot of other options. Not to mention it never needs repairs.

  • KelleyH

    Another pro – we got a power inverter that plugs into our cigarette lighter and use our hybrid as a ‘mini-generator’ when the power goes out. We have run a light and a fan at the same time using it with no trouble. Real nice to have in a NC summer when the power goes out for more than a few minutes and you have young kids you have to keep cool.

  • Bayman

    The Prius is now 17 years old. It is old hat hybrid technology. The Chevy Volt shows the way. Better range extender engines are coming in. Mazda are having a constant speed Wankel as a range extender: small, high power-weight ratio, etc. Lotus have a superb 3 cyl range extender engine.

  • Scott B.

    While I generally agree with this article, it does omit the long-term problems that will come with hybrid (as well as electrical) technology in vehicles. Many conventional fuelled vehicles in their latter years of life are commonly reconditioned by enthusiasts, by mechanics, and also consumed by the third world, where 20+ year old cars are the commonplace vehicle of choice. This is possible because to recondition and re-purpose old vehicles is currently very inexpensive to do, and many parts are relatively easy to fabricate even after the manufacturers have stopped making spare parts. This is of interest here because the hybrid technology, as a green technology, needs to service these market niches as well to be truly green. By merely saving fuel for the initial buyer but then turning into a consumer waste product, hardly qualifies as a viable alternative to conventional fuel efficient automobiles, which many have a considerable lifespan well into their second and third decades of life. This is the true time frame one needs to consider when evaluating the potential environmental impact of hybrid technology.

    As the article stresses, the hybrid battery will likely last a long time for the initial user, but it actually does remain a cost prohibitive component to replace (since if cannot be “repaired”) when the car get old. Yes, it likely won’t die on you as the initial buyer, but how can a car be considered environmentally friendly if it only has a 5-9 year life cycle? Secondly, the main battery is not the only component in the hybrid (or electrical) vehicle that runs afoul of this cost prohibitive replacement for reconditioning/re-purposing consideration. There are also at least two micro-processors in every hybrid/electric vehicle with one to control the power distribution and a second to control the electrical motor function — both of which are also very expensive to replace (in the $800-$1800 each range). To simply pawn this problem of expensive non-repairable components off to the secondary used parts market (as the article does regarding replacement batteries) is ignoring the fact that such parts are only salvaged from cars lost due to vehicular accidents. Truly old cars that are being disposed of due to regular wear and tear have little or no life left in these parts and therefore severely limit the viability of relying on a salvage system for part. Moreover, processors and batteries are highly proprietary parts, not easily reverse engineered by a third-party, nor easily interchangeable (or not interchangeable at all) between manufacturers, and when they fail the hybrid/electric vehicle does in fact become a complete loss, despite the majority of it still technically “works.” There is no repairing it unless you are willing to spend the excessive sums of money to buy these replacement parts and who is willing to do this with a 20+ year old hybrid?

    I am not saying this problems cannot be overcome nor that hybrid tech is not a great idea in theory, but given the strong disincentives among auto companies to avoid taking steps (like standardizing battery and processor technology and opening it up to third party competition) that would actually extend the life of these vehicles and bring the prices down on these prohibitively expensive parts, we are left dependant upon outside pressures, such as government regulations, to mandate such changes before too long in order to avoid these issues. Given the general glacial and impotent manner outside regulation is developed, however, I question whether hybrid (or electric) vehicle technology will end up to be a positive net gain for the global environment whatsoever. In fact, it may very likely end up being much more of a burden upon natural resources in the long run than conventional fuel efficient engines currently are, simply because hybrids, due to costly components, end up having a shorter operational lifespan than the conventional fuel efficient alternative.

    As a side note on the pseudo-hybrid nature of the Insight — the fact that it is not a true hybrid, as the article points out, allows Honda Insight owners to have their mechanic simply by-pass most of the electrical hybrid system once the battery and processors fail (as they have on my own 2000 Insight), allowing Insight owners to continue to operate their once-hybrid vehicles as a conventional fuel efficient car and avoiding the issues I raise above. While my Insight is not as fuel efficient as it once was with regen-breaking, I still get 40+ mpg in city driving, and 50+ mpg on the freeways as a conventional car (the only hybrid tech left in my vehicle is a minor portion of the IMA module that charges the 12volt starter battery like an alternator when the car is driving around town).

    • Car guy

      I generally agree with the author’s points except that i see shade tree mechanics as being very creative. They have learned EFI, ABS, electronic management systems to name some relatively new innovations.

  • oldman

    My 2004 Prius battery pack died at 9 years w/92000 miles. Was quoted $4000 to replace it. Talked them down to $3100 because I was a “good customer” who always had the car serviced at the dealership.

    I will not be buying another hybrid or electric car.. First, I keep my cars too long, the batteries will fail in that time, and they are still too expensive to replace. Second, even if I was to sell ot trade the car before failure, I would feel bad sticking someone with a battery that will like fail soon after. Finally, hybrid cars typically are loaded with electronics that the dealership cannot repair. They can only replace them at a very high cost. I had to repair the multi-display 3 years ago for a manufacturing defect Toyota knew about (and issued a TSB for) but never issued a recall. It failed outside the basic warranty and Toyota wanted $2000 to replace it. I work at a major computer company and had a friend here fix it by re-soldering the failed connecting pins on one of the boards in the unit. It has worked flawlessly ever since. The way manufacturers “service” electronics is the equivalent of replacing your engine it the alternator failed. They don’t do electronic repairs. Just replacements. Having official manufacturer service should not be orders of magnitude more expensive than finding aftermarket solutions. A bit more is reasonable, but not the way it is now.

    I just can’t afford hybrids any more. Maybe once I can buy a Duracell replacement pack from Autozone and drop it in myself I’ll come back, but not right now.

  • consumer awareness

    This article does not address the amount of energy and pollution generated by mining building transporting and installing these batteries. Goes back to what’s really more fuel efficient hybrid vs hummer debate. In all honesty if your goal is to buy a hybrid to help the environment… don’t. You are better off with your Subarus or for that matter a small compact car.

    • AMH5g13

      Actually you are incorrect as the batteries are made from the sludge created from processing crude oil and coal. This is an advantage to helping the environment not taking away from it. I have also done research on hybrid vehicles, I have read ,many blogs from owners. I have yet to read of one person who complained about their purchase. Fossil fuels add pollution to the environment. Small compact cars add just as much and if not kept up to manufactures specs will add more. Check with companies that do reports that don’t have anything to gain about what they write. Your perspective will change.

  • Ratman

    We bought a 2010 with 83,000 miles. It runs great and gets 50 MPG. I have been in business 41 years and this is one of my two favorite vehicles I have used. The other was the Ford Explorer we traded in. The battery is fine but if it goes out you can replace one of the modules instead of the whole thing so it is not that expensive. My brother in law bought an 08 new and it has served him well on his route so I decided to give one a try. New ones start at around 19,000 so it is not so bad. The 2010 we bought was stickered at $27,000 new so we saved a lot of money at the $13,000 we paid for it. Just had it serviced with synthetic oil and it cost $60.00 but good for 5,000 miles. I like the way it handles and the ride is smooth. We decided buying new was not the smartest way to go several years ago and it has paid off for us.

  • les brown

    hybrid engine for a H2? PLEASE HELP?

The content on MoneyCrashers.com is for informational and educational purposes only and should not be construed as professional financial advice. Should you need such advice, consult a licensed financial or tax advisor. References to products, offers, and rates from third party sites often change. While we do our best to keep these updated, numbers stated on this site may differ from actual numbers. We may have financial relationships with some of the companies mentioned on this website. Among other things, we may receive free products, services, and/or monetary compensation in exchange for featured placement of sponsored products or services. We strive to write accurate and genuine reviews and articles, and all views and opinions expressed are solely those of the authors.

Advertiser Disclosure: The credit card offers that appear on this site are from credit card companies from which MoneyCrashers.com receives compensation. This compensation may impact how and where products appear on this site, including, for example, the order in which they appear on category pages. MoneyCrashers.com does not include all credit card companies or all available credit card offers, although best efforts are made to include a comprehensive list of offers regardless of compensation. Advertiser partners include American Express, U.S. Bank, and Barclaycard, among others.
Close