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Do Hybrids Save You Money?

Some do in the long term — and it's generally the smaller ones

Q. I'm thinking of buying a hybrid car. I know gas prices are high, but are hybrids worth their extra cost?

A. It depends on the model, and on various costs associated with the car. Hybrids typically have a sticker price that's about 20 percent higher than their all-gas counterparts. They can also cost more to insure, because their drivers tend to log more miles. And they can also cost more to repair, because specialized mechanics are needed and, with the cars being relatively new, the market for spare parts is not well developed.

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Moreover, you can expect less wiggle room in negotiating a deal on a hybrid. When gas prices climb, so does demand. And the recent Japan earthquake and tsunami halted production of certain models, leaving inventories scarce.

The hybrid's claim to fame — better fuel efficiency — is also open to interpretation. Some four-cylinder models get 40 mpg or more on the highway, about 10 more than what an all-gas car of similar size can manage. But luxury sedan and SUV hybrids may get only 20 mpg, a mere 5 mpg improvement over all-gas models. Plus, that four-cylinder hybrid probably costs only $5,000 more, while the big hybrid's price is about $10,000 higher.

In tracking five-year ownership costs, Consumer Reports finds that only about half of hybrids will save you money in the long run. It's usually the smaller, less expensive models, with a payback of one to two years.

But the other half — typically larger and luxury hybrids — result in higher overall costs than what you'd pay for a gas counterpart, with payback periods likely running longer than the period you would own the car.

To help determine potential gas savings before you trade in your vehicle for a new one, use this calculator from the auto information website Edmunds.com.

Sid Kirchheimer writes about consumer and health issues. Have a question for Sid Kirchheimer about a new product, a new kind of bank account? Check out the Ask Sid archive. If you don’t find your answer there, send a query.

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