The Finch Formerly Known As Gold

12 December 2006

Cars with benefits

I don't think I'm in the target market for a plug-in electric car: I can see owning one as a second vehicle for short jaunts around town, but my garage accommodates only a single car, and it's got to cover most of my conceivable needs.

That said, I think they'll sell fairly well eventually, and while I have my doubts about them, at least they're not going to kill the power grid.

They're not going to save any money, either, but that's not the issue:

The Wall Street Journal reported that these plug-ins will probably cost an extra $6,000 to $10,000 more than our current crop of non-hybrid vehicles, even when mass produced. Batteries are a big part of that premium, so advances in that technology may make the differences smaller in coming years, but as most people already realize, hybrids aren't likely to pay for themselves for at least several years of ownership. Critics often say that hybrids will never pay for themselves on reduced fuel use alone, which is usually true. What most people fail to factor into that equation, however, is that consumers often value the "greenness" of their cars above dollars and cents. The feel-good factor is a big part of the ownership experience. Just like most people don't recycle their cans, bottles and papers for the money, as much as for the notion that they are doing something positive for the planet and cleaning up after themselves.

I've always suspected that the main reason the Toyota Prius dominates hybrid sales is its unquestioned hybridness (hybridity?): there is no non-hybrid version to dilute the branding. Previously in these pages:

Toyota's genius, I think, was building the Prius on its own platform, so it couldn't be directly compared to the Corolla or the Echo/Yaris or the Camry or anything else they sell over here. Honda's Insight was similarly dissimilar, but its penalty-box-on-wheels nature probably discouraged as many buyers as its alleged 55-mpg fuel economy attracted, and the car was dropped from Honda's US line for 2007.

Honda will happily sell you a hybrid Civic or Accord, but apart from the smallish Hybrid badge, it's indistinguishable from its gas-powered brethren. People want to be identified with this sort of thing, and inasmuch as I have an OG&E Wind Power placard in my front window, I'm hardly in a position to make fun of them. If what you want is the cheapest possible personal transport, you ignore all of this and buy something like a Scion xB, which hauls tons (well, kilograms) of stuff, sips fuel abstemiously, and costs thousands less than a Prius, but you won't get that warm green feeling inside.

Posted at 8:00 AM to Driver's Seat , Family Joules

Hybrids and electrics will become profitable to run as gasoline prices rise and stay there. We've noticed in our area that gas went down before the election (hmmmm), then went back up, and it's never returned to pre-Katrina levels.

Now I read that Iran's having trouble maintaining production, due to an inability to maintain the equipment. Of course, it may be that their reserves are running dry as well; OPEC unilaterally increased their reserves a few decades ago, but refused to let any Westerners verify their findings.

Posted by: Bill Peschel at 9:08 AM on 12 December 2006

Or it could be that they're getting to the end of that segment of their reserves that is easily accessible, and that the next few zillion barrels will require more work (and money) to extract. The effect is the same, though.

I paid $2.379 last weekend for unleaded premium; it's dropped a couple cents since then. (The 87-octane stuff runs $2.11ish.)

Posted by: CGHill at 9:35 AM on 12 December 2006

My mom's diesel Jetta with manual tranny get in the range of 50mpg if you're just tooling around under 55mph.

The jetta won't electrocute a rescue worker in a crash either.

Posted by: Purple Avenger at 10:20 PM on 12 December 2006

We'll see how green they are when all those batteries die and have to be disposed.

Posted by: Jeffro at 11:18 PM on 12 December 2006

Might want to check out how long the batteries last - Lexus says about 8 years on their hybrid SUV - and how much it will cost to replace said batteries - and Lexus says $8,000. I don't think Toyota has yet given an answer to either question re the prius.

Posted by: OldeForce at 12:52 AM on 13 December 2006

Batteries are usually recyclable for their lead/nickel content at scrapyards.

Posted by: Purple Avenger at 1:04 AM on 13 December 2006

Last fall a Toyota spokesperson quoted $3000 as the price of a Prius battery array — "though we haven't had to replace a battery yet."

I assume that this is just the parts cost, and labor is additional.

Both Honda and Toyota provide 8-year warranties on the batteries.

Posted by: CGHill at 7:07 AM on 13 December 2006