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Buying & Leasing a Car

How Green is My Hybrid?

For the planet and your pocket, benefits of the latest models are iffy.

Give this to hybrid cars: Their timing is impeccable.

The first half of the decade saw the few available hybrids hugged mainly by the green crowd. But now, just as gas prices mount and concern grows over the automobile's impact on global warming, the number of hybrid models is really ramping up. Hybrids on the market, and their sales, both doubled last year over the previous year.

So are you ready for the bad news? The benefits, economic and environmental, of owning some hybrids aren't so hot. You can't question the fleet cred of the oldest, smallest hybrids, which were designed to use the electric motor to save gas and run clean. However, some newer hybrid sedans and SUVs use an electric motor mainly to boost performance without sacrificing gas mileage, meaning they're more celery green than forest green, environmentally speaking. And when it comes to green as in the color of money, most new hybrids pale when compared with older rivals.

HYBRID SPECIAL REPORT

How Green is My Hybrid?

Rating Seven Popular Hybrids

Slideshow: What a Hybrid Really Costs

What's Next for Hybrids

Whether the aim is to save money or save the planet, it's no surprise that many potential buyers sit on the fence when considering hybrids. In a recent Kiplinger.com poll, 40% of respondents said they were considering a hybrid as their next car (2% of respondents already own one), but 58% said they believed hybrids were not worth the extra cost. As our reviews of seven hybrid sedans and SUVs reveal, there are few black-and-white answers on the benefits of going green, although some models stand above the pack.

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By the numbers

The numbers can get complicated, but here's one simple truth: Unless gasoline prices triple, you're not likely to earn back the premium you'd pay for a hybrid car with savings at the pump. When you compare the cost of a hybrid with its gas-engine doppelgauml;nger, hybrids typically cost at least $5,000 more.

However, this year Uncle Sam began offering more-generous tax breaks to hybrid buyers. Based on fuel economy, they range from a one-time credit of $250 for the Chevy Silverado and GMC Sierra -- light-green hybrids that improve gas mileage only 10% to 15% -- to $3,150 for the Toyota Prius. Some states and local governments also offer incentives. Add savings on gas to the credit, and a couple of hybrid models do indeed pay back their premium.

The Prius, for example, is one of the best values. It isn't the greenest hybrid -- that distinction belongs to the two-seater Honda Insight. But the Prius is selling 100,000 models a year precisely because it combines high gas mileage and ultra-clean emissions in an affordable, roomy hatchback.

That's what sold Ashwani Gupta of Beaverton, Ore., on the Prius about a year ago. Besides needing a family car large enough for his wife, Monica, and his son, Aryan, he wanted an economical car to make the 170-mile round trip to his job as a U.S. Forest Services programmer in Corvallis (fortunately, he can work at home most days). Also, he says, he and his family are "environmentally friendly and support hybrids in a big way."

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The Prius is also a better value than the Toyota Corolla LE, its closest gas-engine match, even though it's priced $5,500 higher. Here's how costs break down: Assume you drive away from the dealership with a 15%-down auto loan and drive 15,000 miles a year. For each car, add up the five-year costs for interest on the loan, insurance, maintenance and repairs, fees and taxes, and fuel. Finally, add estimated depreciation as a cost -- the Prius is expected to depreciate 56% over five years, meaning it will still be worth 44% of the purchase price at that point.

After totaling up the costs for both cars, the Prius is cheaper to own than the Corolla by $565. The only other hybrid that comes close to paying for itself is the Honda Civic. Other hybrids' additional ownership costs range from $1,880 to $3,750. Our slideshow reveals the results of our side-by-side cost comparisons. The numbers on costs come from Vincentric, an automotive-research firm.

Not easy being green

Hybrids' environmental benefits aren't always so cut and dried. According to the American Council for an Energy-Efficient Economy, a slew of four-cylinder-engine compacts earn better "green scores" than all but three hybrids being sold today (for an explanation of green scores, see our rankings of the seven most popular hybrids). That's because these fuel-efficient conventional cars offer superior gas mileage. On the other hand, a hybrid always produces lower emissions than its gasoline-engine equivalent. If you want a compact SUV, you're not going to find a greener model than the hybrid Ford Escape. Need a third row of seats? The Toyota Highlander Hybrid is the most environmentally friendly seven-seater. Want a performance car? The Honda Accord Hybrid bests the V6 Accord's zero-to-60 time by half a second.

There are two ways to look at this, says Bradley Berman, editor of HybridCars.com: "One way is that any improvements you get in fuel efficiency while still giving people what they want in terms of performance is a good thing." On the other hand, performance hybrids are not as environmentally friendly as they could be.

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Muddying the waters of just how much money you save on gas is inflation in the gas-mileage numbers. It's nearly impossible to replicate the EPA-certified fuel-economy numbers in any car because the tests were designed before ubiquitous air conditioning and widespread traffic jams. But the EPA ratings for hybrids are way off. For example, the Prius is rated 60 miles per gallon for city driving and 51 mpg on the highway. Yet even the most careful drivers -- like Gupta -- find it tough to top the mid forties in the city. "I drive to maximize mileage," he says. "I haven't used the air conditioning." Toyota acknowledges that many Prius drivers get the same gas mileage as Gupta.

With production ramping up and 13 models -- up from the current ten -- expected to be available by the end of the year, you won't have to work as hard to find a hybrid. (Preview the upcoming models.) In another year, at least five more models should be out, including the Chevy Tahoe SUV and Toyota Sienna minivan.

Some dealers are still charging higher-than-sticker prices for hybrids, but shopping several dealerships should give you a negotiating edge. Gupta found the Prius in stock at most of the dealers he visited in Beaverton and Portland. The car he wanted had a $2,000 markup, but he haggled his way to the manufacturer's suggested retail price. Before you hit the open market, check out HybridCars.com's Price Pulse, where shoppers from around the U.S. can compare prices, waiting lists and deposit information.

Next: Rating Seven Popular Hybrids