Considering hybrid payback

Hybrid SUVs get better fuel economy than equally powerful gas versions thanks to electric motors and batteries that supplement their gas engines. The electric motor powers the vehicle at low speeds, and an internal combustion (gas) engine kicks in at greater speeds or when more power is needed, such as during quick starts. The engine shuts down at stoplights or in stop-and-go traffic to avoid wasting gas. Regenerative brakes capture the usually wasted kinetic energy while braking and store it in the batteries.

If you're trying to decide whether a hybrid SUV is right for you, experts say to consider the following:

  • Some hybrid SUVs pay back their extra cost fairly quickly -- but some don't. Hybrid SUVs and crossovers always cost more upfront than similar gas-only SUVs, but some -- including the Ford Escape Hybrid -- can pay back the difference in just one year thanks to savings on fuel, depreciation and more, a ConsumerReports.org study found. But other hybrid SUVs, including the Toyota Highlander Hybrid, cost so much more than their gas-only counterparts that it may take eight years or longer to break even.
  • Hybrid SUVs basically feel the same to drive as regular SUVs and crossovers, testers say. Some hybrid crossovers and SUVs are heavier and may not handle quite as sharply as their gas-only counterparts, though. 
  • Hybrid SUVs and crossovers often aren't as good for towing or off-roading as gas or diesel SUVs. Aside from the 2011 Volkswagen Touareg Hybrid, gasoline or diesel engines are generally better options for towing. For example, the 2011 Chevrolet Tahoe Hybrid can tow 6,000 pounds, but that is 2,000 pounds less than the gas-only version and the hybrid powertrain adds significantly to the base price. Furthermore, Toyota specifically states that its Highlander Hybrid is not designed for off-roading.
  • Hybrid batteries are under warranty for at least eight years/80,000 miles. However, "these components have been shown to have a much longer lifespan in testing," Edmunds.com notes. Even if a hybrid's battery needed to be replaced, it would cost about the same as the transmission that would probably need to be replaced on a gas-only car at the same time, ConsumerReports.org editors point out. And hybrids have had fewer problems than other cars overall, according to ConsumerReports.org.
  • Federal tax credits for hybrid vehicles expired on Dec. 31, 2010. Unfortunately, the government no longer offers any tax credits for hybrid vehicles as of this writing.

Hybrid power: the technology and alternatives

Hybrid SUVs and crossovers guzzle less gas and spew less pollution than their gas-only counterparts. Their powertrains are different from traditional gasoline powertrains in that there is also an electric motor and battery that either assist the gasoline engine or allow the vehicle to operate only under electric power under certain circumstances.

Not all hybrids are created equal, experts say, and in many cases other types of vehicles can achieve as good or better fuel efficiency at lower prices.

All of the SUVs and crossovers in this report are full hybrids. At low speeds and under certain light load conditions, they can be propelled by their electric motors alone (as opposed to a mild hybrid where the gasoline engine must always be operating). Like all hybrids, hybrid SUVs also use regenerative brakes to reclaim the energy that's usually lost during braking, feeding it back into the battery pack to use later. These full hybrid SUVs shut off their engines when the vehicle is stopped (such as at a stoplight) to avoid wasting gas. Testers say this happens so smoothly that it's hardly noticeable -- and that overall, driving a hybrid SUV feels basically the same as driving a regular SUV.

Hybrid SUVs aren't the only environmentally friendly, fuel-efficient choices, however. Diesel SUVs often have more torque and horsepower than hybrids, and they can have the same, or better, fuel economy than hybrids in real-life driving (although diesels emit more pollution). Also, the diesel versions of some models are cheaper than their hybrid counterparts, potentially saving consumers thousands of dollars in upfront costs. For instance, the 2011 Volkswagen Touareg TDI is powered by a diesel engine and gets better fuel economy than the 2011 Volkswagen Touareg Hybrid, and it's nearly $13,000 cheaper. BMW, Audi and Mercedes-Benz each make diesel SUVs that deliver better fuel efficiency than many hybrids.

Smaller hybrid cars such as the 50-mpg 2011 Toyota Prius (Base MSRP: $21,400 to $28,070) cost thousands less and use far less gas than even the most fuel-stingy small SUVs. The newest crop of gasoline-powered economy cars is more efficient than ever, with many getting better fuel economy than the best-reviewed 2012 Ford Escape Hybrid (Base MSRP: $30,570 to $34,830). If you don't need four-wheel drive or an SUV-sized cargo bay, a hybrid car or efficient economy car will be a better option.

Can owning a hybrid SUV save you money?

Hybrid crossovers and SUVs cost more than gas-only versions. For example, the 2011 Toyota Highlander Hybrid (Base MSRP: $38,140 to $43,795)  costs about $10,000 more than the base 2011 Toyota Highlander (Base MSRP: $28,090). The hybrid is more powerful and includes four-wheel drive, but the cheaper four-cylinder, front-wheel-drive, gas-only Highlander still gets respectable fuel economy. This raises the question: Is a hybrid sport utility vehicle worth the extra cost?

It depends, experts say. Hybrid SUVs and crossovers pay for themselves faster if you drive many miles (especially in the city) or if gas is expensive. In 2008, when gas prices hovered around $4 per gallon, a ConsumerReports.org study found that several hybrids, including the Ford Escape Hybrid and Chevrolet Tahoe Hybrid, were paying for their extra cost in just one year. On the other hand, the study also indicated that it would take eight years to offset the higher base price relative to the gasoline version of the Toyota Highlander and more than eight years for the Lexus RX 450h. In this study, ConsumerReports.org compared hybrids against their closest gasoline counterparts taking into account factors including base price, fuel economy, maintenance costs, insurance premiums and depreciation.

Edmunds.com and CarGurus.com have both produced studies that aim to answer the same question. Edmunds.com performed its study initially for the 2009 model year and then updated it for 2010 models. Editors found that the 2010 Lexus RX 450h would recoup its higher price only after about 10 years of driving (similar to the results of the ConsumerReports.org study). A similar CarGurus.com study is less useful in that it doesn't provide access to the data used, but the conclusion still offers sound advice. CarGurus.com editors note that in trying to save money by buying a hybrid, a big price premium is bad, and a big difference in fuel economy between the gas and hybrid models is good. When the price premium of a hybrid is minimal and the fuel-economy gains are big, consumers stand the best chance of saving money in the long run.

While hybrid SUVs won't necessarily save their owners money, Edmunds.com points out that hybrid drivers may find the most value in their peace of mind, knowing that they're depending less on foreign oil and emitting less pollution. Besides, "for the hybrid car owners we spoke with, any additional upfront costs were outweighed by their love for their cars," Edmunds.com concludes.

Back to top