2009 Toyota Corolla; photo by Grant Yoxon
2008 Suzuki SX4; photo by Grant Yoxon
Toyota Corolla (top) and Suzuki SX4; photos by Grant Yoxon. Click image to enlarge
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By Greg Wilson

As our 50-litre ChallengeTM demonstrated, compact cars are among the most fuel-efficient vehicles on the road. In a day of mostly highway driving, the best performer, the Toyota Corolla, achieved just 4.9 litres per 100 km. Even the thirstiest compact, the Suzuki SX4, achieved under 8.0 litres per 100 km. The average highway fuel economy of all 13 compact cars worked out to just 6.6 litres per 100 km (43 mpg Imperial).

But how do these fuel-efficient small cars compare to hybrid vehicles, and will a hybrid work out to be cheaper to own in the long run?

The BCAA recently did a detailed comparison of five-year ownership costs between 13 hybrids and their comparable conventional models. They used a figure of $1.40 per litre of gasoline and took into account initial vehicle purchase price, available provincial and federal ‘green’ rebates and tax deductions, and average city/hwy fuel economy. The BCAA concluded that at current gas prices, most hybrids would end up being either less expensive over five years or within a few hundred dollars of comparable conventional automobiles.

In the case of the Honda Civic and Civic Hybrid, the BCAA calculated that the Hybrid model would save the owner $3,868 in total ownership costs over five years. Interestingly though, the analysis showed that the Toyota Prius would be slightly more expensive over five years than the Toyota Matrix, mainly due to the higher initial price of the Prius.

Mid-size hybrids like the Toyota Camry Hybrid and the Saturn Aura Hybrid, were either slightly better (Camry) or slightly worse (Aura) in ownership costs. Compact SUV hybrids, the Ford Escape Hybrid and Saturn Vue Green Line, were cheaper to operate. The worst performers were luxury hybrids, like the Lexus GS450h, LS 600h, and the full-size Chevy Tahoe/GMC Yukon Hybrids which cost considerably more to operate than their conventional counterparts over the long term, in part because their fuel economy wasn’t significantly better and their initial cost was considerably higher. The exception was the Lexus RX 400h SUV which proved cheaper to operate than the RX 350.

The 2008 BCAA analysis contrasts with the results of a similar analysis in 2005 when gas prices were significantly lower: the average five-year ownership costs of all hybrids at that time was 25 per cent higher than comparable conventional models.

One factor will soon reduce the financial competitiveness of hybrids: the federal government is phasing out its Eco-auto rebate program for 2009 models, which currently offers up to $2,000 in savings on some 2008 hybrid models. However, as more hybrids come on the market, hybrid technology improves, and competition becomes more intense, it’s expected that hybrid vehicle MSRPs will come down. For example, when the redesigned Honda Civic Hybrid was introduced in 2006, its MSRP dropped by a whopping $2,550.

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