Car buyers are able to choose from an expanding variety of energy-efficient vehicles at their local dealer. Joining the ranks of hybrid vehicles will be plug-in hybrids (PHVs) and fully-electric cars (EVs) in many shapes and sizes. While some people are excited about the emergence of these new automotive technologies, others invariably make the argument that these cars are “not worth it” and cite the differential cost of the vehicle compared with the projected gas savings they provide. I contend that unless you are thinking of buying one of these cars strictly as a cost-savings measure and for no other reason, then this argument is simply specious.
The reason I say this is that the amount of money any of us spends on a car is primarily a matter of personal taste and preference and has very little to do with the intrinsic value of the vehicle. If all car-buying decisions were to be made strictly on utilitarian/economic grounds, most of us would be driving bare-bones little imports that cost $9,000, or better still, 10-year old little imports that we paid $9,000 for at the turn of the century.
Instead, some of us will spend $40,000 to get the feeling of safety in owning a Volvo, some will spend $90,000 to own the fabled engineering of a BMW 7 series, some will spend $60,000 to get 556 horsepower in a Cadillac CTS-V -- or to look really cool in a Corvette t-top or maybe just to look successful in any number of luxury cars. A (very) few of us will cough up $450,000 for a Lamborghini Mucielago so we can go from 0 to 60 mph in 3.2 seconds (and get 9 miles per gallon doing it.) Certainly many would say that spending that kind of money on a car is an unnecessary extravagance, but for those that buy such vehicles, they feel their money is well-spent.
Fans of hybrid cars brag about their great gas mileage; detractors point out that hybrids cost much more than their standard internal combustion counterparts.
New technologies for fuel efficiency generally inflate the price tag for vehicles. For example, to gauge the price of hybrid technology, there are cars on the market that are available both in standard versions and as hybrids. Examples are the Ford Fusion, the Toyota Camry, the Hyundai Sonata and the Honda Civic. Getting the hybrid typically adds $3000-4000 to the sticker price, but improves mileage by as much as 50% for city driving. That’s a significant amount of foreign oil you don’t have to buy.
Continuing with hybrid technology, there are cars that are only available in hybrid models such as the Toyota Prius, Honda Insight and the Lexus HS. The Prius has led the pack in gas mileage for years; most drivers get at least 50 mpg and some far better. But this comes in a more idiosyncratic package that for some people is really cool but for others is a little weird. As for the price, it is not as clear what car to compare the Prius to. Perhaps the fairest criticism is that it is a bit pricey for its size.
Hybrid cars are costly primarily because of the exotic batteries required for the hybrid drive. Plug-in hybrids and electric cars have even more exotic and much larger battery systems and consequently higher costs. Thus the Chevrolet Volt (which is really an electric car that includes a gasoline-powered generator to recharge its battery) and the soon-to-be released Toyota Plug-In Prius are $40,000 cars. Small electric vehicles such as the Nissan Leaf (in the mid-$30’s) and the 2013 Chevy Spark (price unknown but presumably comparable to the Leaf) command premium prices for eliminating the internal combustion engine and its carbon-filled exhaust. The forthcoming Tesla Model S luxury sedan will cost from $57,000 to $77,000 depending upon the driving range of the car (in other words, the configuration of the battery pack.)
Are these fuel-efficient cars worth the extra money? Perhaps the answer to that question is to ask whether any special attribute of an automobile is worth what it costs. We replace our cars for many reasons that often include the desire for features our current car lacks. We pay for power, for luxury, for roominess, and for sex appeal. Getting excellent gas mileage (or perhaps eliminating the use of gasoline entirely) is a completely reasonable feature to pay for in a car. Objectively, from a strictly financial perspective, it probably does not make sense to replace a car simply to get better mileage. However, there are other reasons to do so such as the desire to be environmentally responsible or perhaps to make a personal statement. Like most things about a car, high gas mileage is a feature that costs money. Whether it is worth the price is mostly a matter of personal values. But if you think about it, high mileage is probably the only automobile feature that gives you any return on your money at all once you’ve paid for it.
As “green” vehicles increasingly enter the marketplace, there is the continuing onslaught of naysayers saying that these cars are “too expensive”. What this really means is that for these people, things like energy efficiency, environmental responsibility and an aversion to buying foreign oil don’t rate much of a price tag. To each his own.
Randy Simon has over 25 years of experience in renewable energy technology, materials research, superconducting applications, and variety of other technical and management areas. He has been an officer of a publicly-traded Silicon Valley company, worked in government laboratories, the aerospace industry, and at university research institutions. Dr. Simon has authored numerous technical papers, magazine articles, a book, holds seven patents and also composes and arranges jazz. He lives in Schenectady, New York and can be reached by email.