Hybrid and plug-in hybrid cars may save you money… But how much?
Hybrid cars are my latest obsession. I’ll soon be in the market for a new car and the idea of rarely paying for gas is very appealing. But I was wondering if a hybrid vehicle would really save money. Are they more expensive? Would I just replace the cost of gasoline with the cost of electricity? If you’re wondering the same things, I’ve got answers.
The first item to note is that I am talking only about hybrids and PHEVs or plug-in hybrid vehicles, which means they run on battery and gasoline. Hybrids typically have a battery and gas engine and do not need to be plugged in. PHEVs have a plug in battery and can run on pure electric until the battery is depleted, then switch to the gas engine. Both recharge battery through regenerative braking and other energy-recapture methods and both use the battery to assist the gas engine to maximize your fuel economy.
This article is not addressing purely electric vehicles, which need to be plugged in and do not have a gasoline engine. An electric car is not realistic for me. And, hybrids and PHEV cars eliminate the “range-anxiety” that is often associated with electric cars since they will seamlessly switch over to gas when the battery runs down.
What Does it Cost to Power a Hybrid Car?
Hybrid cars run on battery and gasoline power. To get an estimate of a car’s miles per gallon and calculate your electric costs, take a look at the Monroney (the window sticker).
You’ll see the combined city/highway MPG – 84 in the case of the Chrysler Pacifica Hybrid. You’ll also see the gasoline-only fuel economy, which is 32. But take note of the “40” on the Monroney. That represents kilowatt hours per 100 miles. Also, note the small print that tells you the all-electric range = 33 miles.
What do all these numbers mean? First, you’ll note that even the gasoline-only MPG will be better than comparable non-hybrid cars. This is because of technologies such as regenerative braking, which harnesses the energy created during braking and feeds it back to the battery. This allows the car to use less gasoline.
Second, if your average commute is less than the all-electric range of the car, or you can charge your car at your workplace, then you might rarely have to use gas at all.
No Gas Doesn’t Mean Free
Electricity still costs money. The cost of electricity is more stable than the cost of gasoline, but it varies widely in the U.S. The residential average per kilowatt-hour (kWh) can be anywhere from 10 cents to 20 cents, except Alaska and Hawaii, which average 22 and 32 cents respectively.
If you typically charge your car at home, overnight, you can estimate the cost of electricity for that charge. To figure out your cost of charging at home, contact your electric company to find out the rate for the time of day you’ll most often be charging. Electric rates are sometimes lower in the middle of the night. Then, multiply your vehicle’s kWh/100 miles figure (40 in our Pacifica example above) by your electric rate. That figure will tell you the cost per 100 miles.
Upgrading to Level 2 Charging
If you commit to a plug-in vehicle, you might also consider installing a 240-volt Level 2 charger in your home. A Level 2 charger, which is similar to the outlet a clothes dryer uses, will charge most cars in around 2 hours, versus 8-9 hours with your standard 120-volt plug. The cost of a 240-volt charging system and installation varies depending on your area and averages $1,000 to $2,000, though there are DIY solutions for $150 or so.
The U.S. Department of Energy also has a nice calculator to help you estimate fuel use and annual costs for a plug-in hybrid based on your driving habits, fuel prices, and charging schedule.
Some Real-World Examples and Reviews of Hybrid Cars
So I set out to test the true cost of driving a hybrid vehicle in real life. I’m a mom who drives approximately 50 miles in city driving each day. About once per month, I drive longer distances for road trips which can range from 200 to 1500 miles. I drove three different hybrid cars, in three different situations. Read on to see what happened…
2018 Chrysler Pacifica Plug-in Hybrid Limited
The Chrysler Pacifica Plug-in Hybrid is a dream car. Yes, it’s a minivan on the outside, but it’s pure joy and luxury on the inside. It’s got room for seven and an incredible amount of space! And while it’s not the most powerful car on the planet, the ride is smooth and I did not experience any drastic lag when accelerating.
I drove the Pacifica mainly around town in my day-to-day routine, and also took it on a weekend trip to Hershey, PA. I was excited to find charging stations at Hershey’s Chocolate World!
At a price of $48,580, this car is stuffed with all the amenities to make any drive an experience that sparks joy. Here are some of my favorite features (and basically my wish list for a new car!):
- Hands-free power liftgate and sliding doors
- Remote start
- Parallel and perpendicular park assist
- Apple CarPlay / Android Auto capable
- Heated steering wheel; heated/ventilated front seats
- Harman Kardon speakers
- 360-degree surround view camera
- Adaptive cruise control
- Automatic high beams
- Seatback entertainment with HDMI and USB ports
- Tri-pane panoramic sunroof
The Pacifica plug-in gets an average of 32 MPG on gas only, and up to 84 MPG with gas and electricity combined.
With a little bit of research at our power company’s website, I found that my electric rate averages 11 cents per kWh. My rate does not change based on the time of day. With this information, I calculated the electricity cost of driving 100 miles in the Pacifica is $4.40 (40 x 0.11).
How does this compare with gas? Gas currently costs $2.15/gallon in my area. The Pacifica Monroney tells me that I need 3.1 gallons per 100 miles. So the cost of gasoline for those 100 miles would be $6.67 (3.1 x 2.15). Clearly, the electricity cost is cheaper, and would be even less if I were to install a 240-volt charger at my home.
2018 Kia Niro PHEV EX Premium
I drove the Kia Niro plug-in hybrid from my home in New Jersey to Milwaukee, WI. This compact crossover had more than enough room for me, my husband and my daughter, plus our luggage and a bunch of guitars and amps my husband needed for an event where he was playing. The Niro is roomier than it looks and absolutely rocks on gas mileage!
The Kia Niro PHEV clocks in at 46 MPG for gasoline-only, and a whopping 105 MPG gas and electricity combined. The all-electric range is 22 miles and it costs 32 kWh/100 miles. Remembering the math, I’d pay $3.52 in electricity per 100 miles, vs $6.67 in gas. The smaller size of the Niro gives it a much better fuel economy than the Pacifica minivan.
With highway driving and no charging, I squeezed 48 MPG out of this car on our drive to Milwaukee! I had no problem charging it at our hotel, and even found a charging station at a public parking lot. I did have to pay for ChargePoint, but I didn’t have to pay for a meter in the parking lot – so that was basically a wash! And I saved on gas by charging up while sight-seeing.
On our drive home, I used an app to find a charging station at a Wal-Mart. We planned a stop, hit Wal-Mart for the bathroom and some food, and charged the car. But since we wanted to get home and our road trip was long, we didn’t charge the car fully.
Besides the gas mileage, what was my favorite feature of the Niro? The cockpit and technology. Kia does such a wonderful job putting everything in the perfect place and offering simple, intuitive infotainment technology.
The model I drove is listed at $35,970.
2018 Toyota Camry Hybrid XLE
I drove the Toyota Camry Hybrid on another long road trip – New Jersey to Atlanta. There were four of us in the car, and an unprecedented amount of luggage (my road trip buddies did NOT travel light!).
The Camry is not a plug-in. It’s simply a hybrid engine that runs on gasoline, yet harnesses power from the car to charge the battery and give you better gas mileage. So there’s no calculating kilowatt hours or electricity costs. It simply improves the gas mileage.
I currently own a Toyota 4Runner and am a big fan of Toyota. The Camry has been a best-seller for ages. So I was excited to see what they had to offer in the hybrid market.
Fuel economy on the Camry Hybrid comes in at 46 MPG combined city/highway. The Monroney states 44 city and 47 highway MPG. I averaged 44 MPG with mostly highway driving (maybe that overstuffed trunk stressed out the engine!).
I can’t offer a review of the tech in the Camry Hybrid because the car I drove did not have the “premium” package that would have offered navigation and other helpful features. I’m also not a fan of having to download and register Toyota’s Entune app in order to use many of the features.
That said, the Camry Hybrid is a smooth, comfortable, safe ride. It includes the following features standard with Toyota Safety Sense:
- Pedestrian detection
- Dynamic radar cruise control
- Lane departure alert with steering assist
- Automatic high beams
- Blind spot monitor
The model I drove is listed at $37,255.
What About the Cost of the Car?
The 2019 Camry L base model (non-hybrid) has a starting MSRP of $23,945. The 2019 Camry Hybrid LE base model starts at $28,150. Will you make up the extra cost in gas savings? That’s hard to say. Working with only the base model Camrys, I calculated the following:
- Average 35 MPG for Camry; 46 MPG for Camry Hybrid
- Driving an average of 12,000 miles per year for five years = 60,000 miles.
- 60K miles in the Camry = 1,714 gallons of gas = estimated gas cost of $3,685
- 60K miles in the Camry Hybrid = 1,304 gallons of gas = estimated gas cost of $2,803
In this simplified example, that’s a savings of just $882 in gas over five years, with a car price difference of $4,205. Obviously, you’d have to look at the features of the two cars you want to compare and do the math for your own specific situation.
Don’t Forget About Tax Incentives
Many states currently offer tax incentives that will save you thousands of dollars if you buy a PHEV car. Don’t forget to check into that in your state and factor that into the cost. And many power companies will subsidize the cost of a Level 2 charger installation!
After all my research, the jury is still out on whether my next car purchase will be a hybrid. But you can be sure I’ll be doing the math!
Disclosure: I was provided the vehicles for the purpose of this article. But all opinions and all math calculations are purely mine!