Ever since hybrids became popular, with the second generation of the Toyota Prius, the question arose of whether the fuel savings justified a hybrid car's higher price. The extra expense for a hybrid car has been called the hybrid premium.
The extra cost for a hybrid car comes from the additional equipment in the driveline. Along with the gas engine, hybrid cars have an electric propulsion motor, a high-voltage battery pack, and a power control module, this latter component determining how to feed electric power into the drive system.
Now, with many automakers offering some type of hybrid car, the competition has opened up. So what is the current status of the hybrid premium? We looked at a selection of 2012 hybrid models, comparing them with their straight gasoline counterparts, if any. In choosing cars for comparison, we stuck to trim levels where navigation was available, to level the playing field. However, even looking at cars at the same trim level, differences such as horsepower and torque assert themselves, so technically we are still talking about an apples to oranges comparison.
Launched only as a hybrid, there is no direct price comparison for the Prius with an equivalent gasoline-only car. Technically, there is no premium for a Prius. But we can compare it to its midsize car segment. The Prius ranges in price from $23,015 to $29,805. To get navigation you must pay at least $25,565 for the Three trim. That price is not much more than for a high-trim midsize sedan, and the Prius will get about 20 mpg better fuel economy than a typical midsize sedan.
Toyota gives us an easier comparison with its Camry, a midsize sedan available in many trims and in a hybrid version. Toyota offers an LE and XLE trim Camry Hybrid, but only the latter can be had with navigation. The Camry Hybrid XLE goes for $27,400; the standard Camry XLE goes for $24,725, a premium of $2,675. The lowest-trim Camry with a navigation option is the SE, which costs only $23,000, making for an even bigger premium.
Comparing the prices of the standard Camry XLE with that of the Camry Hybrid XLE does not tell the whole story. Beyond better fuel economy, the Hybrid XLE has more horsepower, 200 versus 178.
Unlike Toyota, Honda does not assign a trim level to its hybrid Civic, making comparisons a little less direct. The lowest trim level Civic that can be had with navigation is the EX, which goes for only $20,655. The Civic Hybrid bases at $24,200, making for a $3,545 premium. The difference in fuel economy between the two is approximately 10 mpg.
The midlevel Sonata, the SE, is the lowest trim to offer navigation, and its MSRP is $23,195. The Sonata Hybrid, which also offers navigation as an option, runs $25,850, so the premium would be $2,655. The nonhybrid Sonata, as with most midsize sedans, gets a four-cylinder engine. The Sonata Hybrid adds the electric propulsion to the standard engine, which ends up improving both fuel economy and power.
Ford's midsize sedan comes in a number of different trim levels, and the SEL is the lowest that features a navigation option. That car starts at $25,425. The Fusion Hybrid, which also has an optional navigation system, goes for $28,775. The hybrid premium comes out to $3,350. Like the Civic, the average fuel economy difference should be about 10 mpg.
The Fusion's luxury sibling, the Lincoln MKZ, also comes in hybrid and nonhybrid versions. However, Lincoln does not charge differently for either car, pricing both at $34,755. The MKZ Hybrid comes with a four-cylinder-based hybrid power train; the standard MKZ uses a V-6. The fuel economy difference is about 15 mpg.
Buick decided to equip its new LaCrosse standard with a mild hybrid system called eAssist. That fact changes the hybrid premium calculation significantly. The lowest-trim LaCrosse, which makes navigation available and comes with the eAssist system standard, the Premium Group I, starts at $32,935. Buick offers a nonhybrid, V-6 version of the LaCrosse, and at its navigation available trim it costs $34,350, giving the LaCrosse a hybrid premium of negative $1,415. Buick does not release a total system horsepower for its hybrid, but it will be significantly less than the 303 horsepower of the V-6. The fuel economy difference is about 8 mpg, in favor of the hybrid.
Lexus has long made its RX SUV available in hybrid form as well as with a straight gas engine. The hybrid RX 450h goes for $45,235, whereas the RX 350 starts at $39,075, a difference of $6,160. The hybrid is a bit more powerful than the standard version, 295 versus 270 horsepower, and the hybrid gets about 8 mpg better fuel economy.
At an extreme end of the spectrum sits the Porsche Cayenne, also offered with a hybrid drivetrain. Although lower trim models can be had with navigation, Porsche makes it clear that the hybrid is a variant of the Cayenne S trim. The hybrid costs $69,000, whereas the standard Cayenne S goes for $65,000, a $4,000 premium.
The Cayenne S gets a V-8 under the hood, and the Cayenne S Hybrid comes with a V-6 complemented by the electric drive system. The V-8 produces 400 horsepower and the hybrid V-6 380 horsepower. However, the hybrid engine also produces greater torque, thanks in part to a supercharger forcing air through the engine. The fuel economy is not much different between the two, with the hybrid getting a 3 mpg advantage.
Merely looking at the premium for a hybrid car, than calculating how long it would take to recoup that amount through the improved fuel economy, misses quite a few other factors. Despite myths about costly hybrid system battery replacements, routine maintenance on a hybrid vehicle is likely to be lower because of reduced brake usage. Brake energy regeneration means brake pads will last significantly longer, so the cost of a brake job can be subtracted from the premium. All other routine maintenance is the same between hybrid and nonhybrid cars.
Better fuel economy includes many less tangible benefits. On the environmental side, burning fewer gallons means fewer pollutants in the atmosphere, although many new straight gas-engine cars produce remarkably low emissions as it is. The larger environmental benefit of better fuel economy comes from less carbon dioxide released to the atmosphere. Each gallon of gasoline burned releases 19.6 pounds of carbon dioxide, and there are currently no technologies to sequester those emissions at the tailpipe.