Let's start off with what this is not: It is not scientific. It is not definitive. It is not perfect.
And what it is: It is amateur. It is how I look at things. It is based on manufacturers' numbers.
There have been quite a few of these comparisons in the past by various news outlets and bloggers and anyone that felt like it. Thing is I don't recall ever seeing the detail that I wanted to see in them. So I made my own. What is it? It is a spreadsheet that compares various hybrid models to their base model mid-sized sedan counterparts. So Camry vs Camry Hybrid, Sonata vs Sonata Hybrid, etc.
I looked at only those that had both a basic model and a hybrid model (no Prius, no Insight, etc). And I also only compared the base model against the hybrid. Sure, when you look at specs, the hybrid probably has other features that the base model does not, but for the simplicity of the comparison, these things are ignored. I'm mostly focusing on the money. For the people that want to buy a hybrid for the sake of saving money on gas, what are they really getting into? Is there really any savings?
Of course there is! You'll save money on fuel, but you will pay an average of about $7200 more for the car over MSRP of the base model between the 4 cars I looked at. Those four included the Hyundai Sonata, Ford Fusion, Toyota Camry, and Nissan Altima.
I also looked at 3 different driving scenarios: mostly city, mostly highway, and half and half. For the "mostly" ones, I considered 90% driving to be "mostly." So "mostly highway" is 90% highway and 10% city for my calculations.
Let me start by saying that if you drive mostly highway and are looking at one of these particular hybrids... don't. Just skip them all. You'd take a minimum of 32 years to recoup the extra MSRP in fuel savings (Sonata Hybrid)... and may take all the way up to 79 years for the Altima Hybrid. Ouch. Again, if you drive almost completely on the highway - do not buy one of these things.
If you drive about half and half, it still doesn't look that great. The average time to recoup your "hybrid tax" between the 4 models is about 20 years. So what about mostly city driving? That has to be awesome, right? That's mostly what these things are made for, isn't it?
Sort of, ya. And they certainly do better in a mostly city environment. The Sonata comes out on top (as they did in all of the numbers) with a break even time of just over 10 years. The times just went up from there, all the way to the Altima at a little over 14 years. Based on math alone, the Altima Hybrid seems to make the least amount of sense between any of them. Clearly a case of "we need a Hybrid model - I don't care if it sucks."
Here's a very simple breakdown of how the numbers worked out on the right... These specific numbers are assuming an average of 12k miles per year and at the current price of gas around $3.35 (that's what it is near me anyway).
Another point worth mentioning is that if you drive much more than 12k/yr or if fuel prices were to skyrocket in the next year or two (which they probably will) these numbers work out MUCH better.
For example, if you drive 20k miles per year (mostly city), the extra cost of the Sonata Hybrid would break even in just over 6 years (vs over 10 years at 12k miles/year). Likewise for fuel. If prices were to go up to $4/gal, you'd get your money back on the Sonata Hybrid in about 8.5 yrs (vs the 10+ years at $3.35/gal). And if you drive a lot AND the price of gas goes up, things look even better... cutting most of the break even times in half. The Sonata Hybrid paying for itself in barely over 5 years.
What does this all mean? Not much... I was just bored. But it should really serve as a reminder that if you are shopping for a new car and considering a hybrid, you absolutely need to do a ton of research to figure out if one would be beneficial to your specific driving environment. Of course not everything is about saving money either... there may be some of you saying to yourselves "I don't care if I spend a little more money, I just want to reduce my 'carbon footprint' or use less fuel."
And to those people, I say, you STILL need to do a ton of research. But let's jump back into the data... If you are concerned about fuel consumption and just want to use less and help the planet, between these four models, I'd say you should take a look at the Ford Fusion. Driving 12k miles per year, mostly city, the Fusion Hybrid can save you over 200 gallons of fuel per year vs its non-hybrid model. That's quite significant, if you ask me. It translates to savings of about $700/yr in fuel costs (at current prices). The Sonata Hybrid doesn't do too bad itself, saving just shy of 190 gallons of fuel per year in mostly city driving.
If I were to ONLY consider this data that I've been playing with, and was going to buy only one of these four (eight?) cars, my choice would be between the Sonata and Fusion Hybrids. Overall they do reasonably well in the math department and are both great cars. And I think if it weren't for the Fusion's higher "hybrid tax" (difference in Hybrid MSRP vs Base MSRP), I think it would come out on top in every category.
So take from this what you will... sorry it was long. I just felt like writing something today. If you're curious what the rest of my math looks like, you can download the Excel spreadsheet here. I may have totally screwed all of this up... but that's OK, at least it got you reading something. And maybe now you'll go do some more research and find what you're looking for. Good luck.
EDIT: Uploaded a new version of the spreadsheet that includes the Jetta in a TDI vs reg gas comparison. Cliff's Notes: It's not as great as you'd expect.