Is a New Hybrid Car Worth the Hype? How It Shakes Out for the Planet and Your Wallet
Updated: Sep 26, 2019
Sunday morning, as I backed out of my apartment's parking space, I couldn't help but think: This is amazing!
I was behind the wheel of a 2019 Toyota Rav-4 Hybrid, listening to the high-pitched, celestial sound the vehicle's engine makes when at very low speeds and is powered only by its battery. This sound is part of a 2016 mandate that, by 2019, all hybrid and electric vehicles must make a sound when traveling at low speeds to alert pedestrians to their presence--a mandate that's estimated to save around 2,400 pedestrian injuries a year, the Chicago Tribute reports
I was about to take the car for a quick spin with my husband while we had it on an extended, weekend test drive from a local dealership (a very good idea, if you are considering buying a new car, in my opinion! Our dealer let us take it early Saturday afternoon and return it the following Monday evening since the dealership is closed Sundays).
This was the first time I'd ever driven a hybrid. Growing up, I'd always seen hybrids as a sort of technological rarity--but now it seems, with their fully-electric powered counterparts, they are slowing becoming more common in parking lots around the country!
Sunday morning, the differences between the Rav-4 Hybrid and gas vehicles began to become apparent as soon as I started the vehicle’s engine and, instead of the usual idling sound, there was simply a short beep and silence.
Then, behind the wheel, I was incredibly impressed by how smoothly the vehicle accelerates and handles turns.
I drove it around the "S" curves that cut around the public park near our apartment, and while I'm not someone who normally enjoys driving, I had to admit it put a smile on my face when I put my foot down and the car instantly sped up.
The vehicle's inside display system also shows you how breaking charges the vehicle's battery using a system called regenerative braking. You can watch the battery being charged in real-time on this screen!
The car even gives you an Eco Score after you finish driving it based on how much time the car was powered by its electric motor.
So, are all the "Eco" bells and whistles of this vehicle and hybrids in general really worth the environmental costs to mass-produce them? And the costs to even afford them? That's what my husband and I are trying to figure out, and we'll take you along for the ride!
As Eco-Friendly as Claimed? The Bad...
It seems most studies have found it generally takes more energy and greenhouse gasses that trap heat in Earth's atmosphere, intensifying climate change, to make a hybrid or all-electric vehicle.
Making a medium-sized gas-powered, or an internal combustion engine, vehicle results in emissions of about 5.6tCO2e, or tons of carbon dioxide equivalent, which measures the emissions of other greenhouse gases to one unit of carbon dioxide, or CO2. This is according to the UK-based Low Carbon Vehicle Project, which also found a similar-sized electric vehicle would cause emissions of 8.8tCO2e—and 43% of those emissions are from making the battery.
And yes, unfortunately, hybrid batteries do require more energy and fossil-fuel consumption than traditional car batteries do, according to the New York Times. Toyota has admitted this, and it is because hybrids such as the Prius require more technically-advanced parts, and of course, it requires the parts for double the number of engines (the electric and gas motors).
The vehicle’s battery is lithium-ion and made with many rare metals such as nickel and copper. The energy-intensive mining of these metals makes up about 2 to 5 percent of the hybrids total emissions, according to HowStuffWorks. And more disturbingly, hybrids emit 22 pounds (10 kilograms) of sulfur oxide, a pollutant made from sulfur and oxygen molecules that cause smog and acid rain, compared to 2.2 pounds (about 1 kilogram) for a conventional vehicle.
Before you completely lose trust in any green claims made by companies that make hybrid cars, consider this: while producing electric vehicles or EVs and hybrids is more energy-intensive, it can be greener overall, according to the Low Carbon Vehicle Project.
Over its entire lifecycle, an EV will generally save around 6 tons of CO2. The Low Carbon Vehicle Project (LowCVP) reported in 2015 a medium-sized family car creates around 24 tons of CO2 throughout its lifecycle while EVs produce about 18 tons.
However, Toyota, in particular, is going to some considerable lengths it seems to offset the carbon dioxide emissions from the manufacturing of its hybrid vehicles.
“The automotive industry is already taking positive steps to address this issue,” said Greg Archer, LowCVP Managing Director, in a 2015 press release. “The announcement by Toyota of a solar array to provide electricity to power the hybrid Auris production facility and wind power at the Nissan Leaf plant are excellent examples of this.”
Toyota also planted around 50,000 trees to offset emissions, the New York Times reported in 2009. And one of Toyota's more unusual efforts involved creating two new flower species aimed at absorbing specific greenhouse gases (Green Car Reports). One of the flowers is related to the cherry sage plant and it has leaves that absorb nitrogen oxides—another greenhouse gas like sulfur oxide but composed of nitrogen and oxygen. It can cause asthma, respiratory issues, acid rain, and smog (U.S. National Library of Medicine).
The other flower, related to the common gardenia, creates water vapor that can reduce the temperature around the factory, reducing the need for pollution-causing air-conditioning inside the building.
Focusing more on the emissions of each car type: is it greener to drive a hybrid overall than a gas vehicle?
Let's break down the numbers:
There's about 20 pounds (9 kilograms) of the climate-change fueling greenhouse gas carbon dioxide (C02) in every gallon of gasoline (How Stuff Works). While a hybrid car will emit 51.6 pounds (23.1 kilograms) of carbon dioxide every 100 miles (161 kilometers), a conventional car will emit 74.9 pounds (34 kilograms).
The average driver in the U.S. travels nearly 13,500 miles (21,726 km) in a year (United States Department of Transportation).
If my math (with my husband's help) is correct, going by the numbers above, in a year, a hybrid will emit about 3,145.5 fewer pounds (1426.7 kilograms) of C02 than a conventional, fully gas-powered car.
And maybe it's much less. The Star-Tribune reported in 2016 that the average hybrid emits around 5,000 pounds (2,268 kilograms) of CO2 a year compared to 11,000 pounds (4,989.5 kilograms) internal combustion vehicles produce.
Also, Toyota claims it is aiming to eliminate all of the greenhouse gas emissions from producing their vehicles by 2050. In a detailed 2018 North American Environmental Report, the company says it consumed or offset greenhouse gases with almost 54 million kilowatt-hours of renewable energy in 2018, combining several types of renewable energy projects such as installing a 3.1 megawatt solar array on its assembly plant in San Antonio, Texas and using landfill gas at its assembly plant in Kentucky.
So what do all of these numbers mean for your wallet? It may not be as promising as you'd think with gas prices being relatively cheap ($2.668 a gallon according to AAA) and the average premium for a hybrid car being at least $2,500 off the top (NerdWallet)
One example: let's say you buy a hybrid for $30,000 that gets 48 mpg over a similar gas-powered car that sells for $27,500 and gets 28 mpg.
If you drive 1,250 miles (2,011.7 km) each month and pay for gas at $3 a gallon, the hybrid would save you $56 a month, and it would take you 45 months to pay back the premium, according to Nerdwallet.
And another nice thing to consider: owning a hybrid can be seen as an insurance against gas price increases because say gas is $4 a gallon, a hybrid could save you around $74 a month (if you drive 1,250 miles).
Forbes reported in 2017 more models are coming on the market that, after at least several years of ownership, will be able to save buyers money in the long run.
“Our study showed a significant increase in the percentage of hybrids that can save buyer’s money over five-years when compared to an all-gas counterpart,” David Wurster, president of Vincentric—a company that specializes in providing data and insight on the automotive industry—told Forbes.
In our research, my husband and I found that compared to a traditional SUV, the Toyota Rav-4 Hybrid would save us around $300 a year with current gas prices.
Over a year, $300 is not outstanding considering the upfront cost of the vehicle and its quick depreciation rate.
But change for that depreciation rate might be on the horizon. And in 2017, a study showed hybrids could depreciate less than their gas-powered counterparts.
Cars.com reported the study found 2017 hybrids with 100,000 or more miles lost on average 50.9 percent of their value compared with non-hybrids, at 53.4 percent. It also found there seems to be a trend of hybrid and electric vehicles depreciating less and less quickly--a trend that is likely to continue for several reasons.
"'First, hybrid technology continues to improve, further enhancing the value proposition of higher mpg,” Autolist’s Vice President of Data Science, Alex Klein, told Cars.com. “'Second, now that hybrids have been available longer and consumers see, in many cases, the equivalent reliability, it quells fears that the additional technology could somehow be detrimental.'”
So, all things considered, is a Toyota Rav-4 Hybrid worth the hype?
My husband and I still aren’t entirely sure, but we are leaning more toward a hybrid.
My husband is more keen on all-electric vehicles, which many articles do argue are causing hybrid cars to become obsolete--Quartz reported hybrid sales were down to just 2 percent of the U.S. auto market in 2017 from 3.1 percent in 2013.
So yes, there are risks--but there are risks with anything in life and I think things can change depending on the circumstances.
For example, frenzied demand for the 2019 Rav-4 Hybrid has some people waiting up to four months for one, according to Torque News--this is not only due to the much better mpg, but also the better horsepower: 219 net horsepower compared to 203 net horsepower for the gas version.
Yes, electric vehicles that don't run on gasoline and don't emit CO2 are probably the gold standard, but hybrids can be seen as a step in the right direction. And for our precious planet, I think every mile is worth it.
So as we continue to pour through paperwork, I'll just leave you with this: it seems the rewards of a hybrid may be worth the risks, from your wallet to being behind the wheel.
Sources: https://carbuyerlabs.com/is-buying-a-used-car-more-environmentally-responsible/https://business.financialpost.com/business-trends/increasing-popularity-of-hybrid-vehicles-aiding-global-push-for-sustainabilityhttps://www.greencarreports.com/news/1038051_toyota-creates-new-flower-species-to-cut-co2-from-prius-productionhttps://www.nerdwallet.com/article/hybrid-electric-cars-hype-justify-price (cost savings)https://www.cars.com/articles/hybrids-now-depreciate-less-than-non-hybrids-study-shows-1420697373316/ (depreciate)