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Hybrids and Electrics: What You Should Know

By Brian O'Connell

  • Whether you want to lessen your carbon footprint, save gas money or both, here are some things to consider when purchasing your hybrid or electric vehicle.

    As American auto shoppers deal with fluctuating gas prices, they're increasingly turning to hybrid or electric cars. According to a J.D. Power & Associates survey of car owners, 95 percent of hybrid and electric car owners said gas mileage was a key factor in their purchase decision. And 62 percent reportedly bought the cars because of their environmental benefits. But not everybody embraces these cars, the study noted, as higher price tags keep away many would-be buyers.

    If you're thinking of a switch to a hybrid or an electric vehicle, consider these factors:

    • "Feel-good" factor. Many drivers buy a hybrid or electric vehicle because they care about the environment. Hybrid cars run off a rechargeable battery in addition to gasoline, thereby reducing emissions. In city traffic, the engine shuts down during stops, further reducing these cars' environmental impact. As for electric vehicles, the U.S. Department of Energy notes that they emit no tailpipe pollutants and make better use of their energy source: They convert about 60 percent of electrical energy into power, while gas-powered vehicles only convert about 20 percent of gasoline's energy into power.
    • Cost. According to auto research resource Edmunds.com, hybrid cars can cost up to 20 percent more than comparable vehicles powered by conventional engines. Prices range from $20,000 for the most basic model to luxury cars that cost upwards of $100,000. To determine if a hybrid makes financial sense for you, the U.S. Department of Energy offers a helpful cost-analysis calculator.
    • Mileage. This is where hybrids shine — getting from 40 to 50 miles per gallon. But fuel savings often won't offset higher up-front costs, according to a 2012 study conducted by TrueCar.com and commissioned by the New York Times. They found that it often takes years — sometimes up to a decade — of saving money at the pump to compensate for a hybrid's higher purchase price. If you're mostly a highway driver, you won't see much of a difference in fuel economy from a similar model with a standard gas engine — with fewer stops, electric engines don't take over as frequently. As for electrics, Edmunds.com notes that differences in electricity costs around the country make it difficult to calculate national estimates for cost per mile. In addition, electrics can still only go about 100 to 200 miles before needing a recharge, while a traditional engine can drive more than 300 miles between fill-ups.
    • Reliability and repairs. Hybrids and electrics earned high marks in the Consumer Reports 2012 Annual Auto Reliability Survey, with most hybrids and electrics scoring above average for predicted reliability. And as Edmunds.com notes, electric cars don't require the kind of routine maintenance, such as oil changes, required for gas-powered cars. But when you do need to make repairs, the news is also good: More alternative vehicles on the road have led to better, cheaper service. CarMD.com, a vehicle repair data provider, notes that hybrid repair costs have dropped even as total vehicle costs increased over the past year. Many of the high-cost repairs specific to hybrid vehicles have gotten cheaper — for instance, the average cost of replacing an inverter assembly went from around $7,300 in 2010 to less than $4,000 in 2012.
    To review some of the best hybrid cars in terms of reliability, mileage and costs, check out U.S. News and World Report's rankings. The U.S. Department of Energy also has a tool for reviewing different types of alternative vehicles.

    After you identify the factors that matter most to you, use these reports to find the best car possible.