People often wonder just how much money they can save by purchasing a Toyota Prius. With the Prius’ famed EPA fuel consumption estimates of 51 miles per gallon city and 48 highway, everyone believes it is not a question of whether, but how much, the Prius will save you.
Sadly, the notion of the Prius being a sound frugal living choice is another myth generated by shortsightedness and tremendous marketing. The myth is easily exposed by following one of the basic rules of practical frugal living of thinking it through. When we do that, we can easily see that any sensible, traditional gas powered compact or economy class car will match or beat the total cost of the Prius.
The problem lies in the Prius’ starting price tag, which is a good thirty to forty percent higher than comparably sized non-hybrid models. The Prius, you see, relies on two engines, one of which is powered by a hugely expensive battery, for power. When you put two engines in a vehicle, the price rockets upward pretty quickly.
Let’s see how that increased purchase price negates the eventual gas savings even before you drive the first mile. Start by looking at some “base prices,” (i.e., those MSRPs that are always a few thousand dollars short of the actual price needed for a car with basic options.) The Prius Two weighs in at a starting price of $24,200 for the basic 1.8L four cylinder engine. The Chevrolet Cruze LS automatic starts at $18,225 with the same size engine (and still gets you 35 miles per gallon on the highway, by the way.)
Just to give Prius the benefit of every doubt, let’s liberally assume that you will do all of your driving in the city, where the Prius’ fuel efficiency advantage is the greatest. By comparing only city fuel efficiencies, you will average a full 26 more miles per gallon of gas with your Prius. Let’s also assume gas prices of $4.00 per gallon. That $6,180 in additional sales price and sales tax that the Prius will cost you equals 1,545 gallons of gasoline. That’s how much you are in the hole the day you put the first mile on the odometer. That means that you’ll need to drive your Prius for about 65,000 miles, entirely within the city, before you break even on the cost. Yes, I realize that if gas prices soar above $4.00 per gallon, the breakeven point would come sooner. But I think we also all realize that most of a car’s miles are driven on the highway, where the Prius’s fuel efficiency advantage shrinks to 16 miles per gallon.
Now let’s compare Prius to another Toyota, one with a well-earned, decades-old reputation for reliability, the Corolla. The Corolla’s starting MSRP is $16,230, making for a roughly $8,240 difference in sales prices and additional sales tax. Meanwhile, the Corolla boasts fuel efficiency numbers of 27 city and 34 highway. With this comparison, you have a wider price difference gap and a smaller fuel efficiency advantage to work with. The end result is that, even if you do all of your driving in the city, after 100,000 miles of driving, you will still be about $1,700 in the red with the Prius. If you check the numbers on other sensible cars, such as the Hyundai Accent and Elantra or the Kia Forte, you will quickly notice that there are plenty of other opportunities to beat the Prius in savings. Then there is the Nissan Sentra, which starts at $15,990 and brings you fuel efficiency numbers of 30/39.
So why would you do that? Why pay over eight thousand dollars more for an uglier car? And don’t get me wrong, I’m all for green living. I recycle and reuse religiously, and I’m conservative with my consumption habits. But, I’m sorry, I don’t believe in putting myself in the red for the sake of being environmentally friendly.
Some will respond that the Prius is cheaper when purchased used, and that’s absolutely correct. So is the Corolla, the Sentra, and every car made, by the way. The price gap between the Prius and a non-hybrid model might narrow a bit the older they are, but so will the opportunity to recoup the difference through gas savings. In other words, if you buy your car with 80,000 miles on it, it becomes much harder to go another 100,000 without incurring substantial mechanical expenses. The expenses that arise after 100,000 miles, by the way, are likely to be much higher with the Prius, as those expensive batteries and computer systems begin to fail.
I’m not sure why people are so quick to overlook the financially losing proposition of the Prius. Some folks, I suppose, are just so ecstatic at the thought of 51 miles a gallon that they don’t even think of comparing prices. Others will say that it is worth paying more in order to “save the planet.” To me, it’s not. And until hybrid technology reaches the point where comparably sized cars are comparably priced, the practical choice is a traditional model with better looks, better rear view visibility, and a forty percent cheaper price.
Update 07/25/2014: You might want to review my more recent post on Emotions, Pride and the Myth of Prius Savings, which discusses comments received on the above and how emotions and pride often prevent people from thinking through the financial wisdom of purchases like this.