Hybrids: The best bang for your buck?

The biggest waste of money on the planet has to be a new car — the moment you drive it off the lot, it starts depreciating.

All I need is a clunker as long as my air-conditioning works for humid Canadian summers, my heater warms me for Canadian winters and my car radio is functioning for the all-day traffic in most major cities.

But I don’t get the final call on these matters and about a decade with the same vehicle seems like the appropriate time to look for something new.

One of the first questions you have to ask yourself in the environmentally friendly age we live in is: Should I purchase a vehicle with hybrid technology?

I’m not against being green as long as you’re referring to dollar bills. I want the best car for my money –if it’s a hybrid then fine.

For my family of four, we decided we wanted some type of sport-utility vehicle with four-wheel drive to deal with winter and a driveway that feels like it’s on a 10% grade. I also need something that seats at least six, limiting my options.

“The first and foremost benefit of a hybrid and why it’s worth the money is you get two engines instead of one,” says Canadian auto analyst Dennis DesRosiers. “You actually get a better-performing vehicle. When it’s best for performance for the electric, the electric kicks in. When it’s best for gas, the gas kicks in.”

Mr. DesRosiers says the gas savings can be good, especially if the majority of your driving is below 50 to 60 kilometres an hour. The average consumer in Canada drives 22,000 km/year, so in four or five years a hybrid driven primarily in the city could pay for itself.

Considering Toyota is a leader in hybrid technology, I took a quick squint at its four-wheel-drive V6 SUV, the Highlander. The 2010 base model, if I get a package that has the third-row for the six seats I need, would be $55,228.75 with tax based on the manufacturer’s suggested retail price.

A gas-powered Highlander with three rows of seating would be $44,335.55 with taxes based on the MSRP.

For the car I want with the options I need, that’s $10,893.20 more. Some provinces grant you a tax break, but even if I get $2,000 back from the government, that’s still nearly $9,000 more. That’s a lot of extra green to be green. Is it worth it?

I drive 16,000 km/year at most. Based on Toyota’s figures for combined city and highway driving, the Hybrid needs 7.7 litres of fuel for every 100 km. At a buck a litre, I would spend $1,232 per year on gas with the hybrid. The gas-powered version requires 10.8 litres of fuel per 100 kilometres, so it would cost me $1,728 in gas.

So, I would save a whopping $500 per year in gas. I’d break even after close to 18 years. Even a cheapskate like me doesn’t hold on to a car for that long.

Jessica Caldwell, an industry analyst with car research site edmunds.com,says hybrids numbers still don’t work. Her company says it would take 25.3 years in the United States for the hybrid Highlander to make financial sense based on about 24,000 km/year. “I think people like the status of having a hybrid. Unless gas prices are extremely high, like they were last summer [2008], they don’t make a lot of sense,” says Ms. Caldwell, referring to a time when gas cost as much as 50% more than it does now.

There are situations to justify a hybrid purchase. There is a Vancouver cab company that has switched to hybrids. But I still don’t drive 250,000 kilometres per year and I am on the highway a fair bit. No hybrid for me.