Why I bought a hybrid

Gas is around $2 a gallon, and I just bought a hybrid. Why?

It makes sense and it doesn’t make sense. So let’s talk this through. I bought one, and if you’re thinking about getting one, I think it can be a very good idea.

First of all, it didn’t make sense because I owned the best Civic that Honda ever made. It had 230,000 miles on it (210,000 of which were mine) and it never stranded me anywhere. Even with a check engine light on, it still found a way to get me home every single time. I never wanted to get rid of that car. But it had gotten to the point where I was spending $2,500 a year to get it to pass its safety inspection, and the car was only worth $2,000 on a good day.

But I guess that’s not the main point–the main point is I replaced it with a hybrid. After sales tax and all the nickel and dime hidden fees, it cost me $17,200–not a bad deal for a Toyota Camry of any stripe with 35,000 miles on it. And this particular Camry happened to get 50 miles to the gallon on the way home.

Nobody wants hybrids right now. Gas is cheap, so they want pickup trucks and SUVs the size of school buses. Those are crazy expensive right now. Hybrids are so out of fashion that Honda isn’t making some of its hybrid models this year. I would have bought a hybrid Accord, if I could have found one. I couldn’t. I found a hybrid 2006 Civic with about 50,000 miles on it for $8,000. That’s insane. I thought long and hard about that one, but decided I’d like to have a bit more room since I’m going to be traveling more.

So that left the Camry. A conventional Camry like mine with comparable mileage cost exactly the same where I bought it. There are 10 times as many conventional Camrys (Camries?) out there, so the hybrids are harder to find and you might not get the color you want. But as long as you’re buying used and can be flexible on the color, you can pay exactly zero dollars extra to get a hybrid. The big knock on hybrids has always been that you have to keep them 10 years to make up for the price difference. Right now, at least if you’re buying used, that’s no longer the case.

It’s a buy-low opportunity, like buying stocks or real estate in 2008 was. And I think it’s a smart buy.

First, gas isn’t going to stay at $2 a gallon. Adjusting for inflation, that’s $1.47 in 2001 dollars, which is only slightly higher than the prices I remember paying in the summer of 2001, before gas prices started jumping. Here’s a historical gas price chart, adjusted for inflation. We’re not at historic lows right now, but prices are definitely lower than average, which is $2.64 a gallon in today’s dollars.

Second, reducing my energy usage does no harm. If nothing else it reduces pollution and improves air quality. It’s likely there are other benefits. If those other benefits exist, it cost me zero dollars up front to contribute to them. If those other benefits don’t exist, it cost me zero dollars up front to chase them so it’s a wash anyway. (No comments on whether those benefits exist, please. You’ve made up your mind and so have the people who agree and disagree with you.)

It’s also not hard to find stories about how tires and brakes last longer on hybrids than on conventional cars, since the energy from braking is used to charge the batteries rather than wasting it as heat. Brakes and tires are expensive, so that’s a plus.

What about the battery? I asked my local mechanic about that. He said to plan on replacing it at around 200,000 miles, and to expect it to cost no more than $4,000. It takes 5,000 gallons of gas to drive 200,000 miles at 40 MPG. At 30 MPG it takes 6,600 gallons. If gas stays below $2.50 a gallon and battery prices don’t come down, I lose. The historical inflation-adjusted average is $2.64 and battery prices are trending downward. Besides that, used battery packs salvaged from wrecks cost a few hundred dollars. He’s fixed my Civic before with used parts.

Consumer Reports also says hybrids tend to be more reliable than their conventional counterparts. But even if the only benefit is tires and brakes lasting longer, that helps offset the cost of the battery.

The other knock on hybrids has been that to get the advertised MPG you have to adjust your driving style. But that’s really true of any car, and hybrids give you feedback. Not only do I have a speedometer, I have an indicator of the MPG I’m getting. So if I mash the gas pedal to the floor, I can watch my MPG fall through the floor to single digits and see how long it stays there. I can also ease up on the gas pedal and watch the balance between maintaining prevailing speed and keeping my MPG at or near the advertised rate. And when I park the car, it tells me what MPG I got. Driving home in rush hour, I got 50 MPG. Going to the doctor the next day, I got 40 MPG.  So while I may have to learn, the car will teach me, and that’s OK.

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