Reduces emissions, increases questions
People notice when you drive a hybrid. And they tend to ask questions—skeptical questions, mostly. A lot of people have heard something from a friend of a friend that has given them doubts about the wisdom or the virtues of owning a hybrid car. Here are the three most common questions, and my responses.
Do you save enough on petrol to pay for the extra expense of a hybrid car?
It all depends on the alternative car, of course. In my case, I was downscaling from a Honda FRV to a Jazz Hybrid. The Jazz cost less than a new equivalent of an FRV—which is no longer available—and consumes about half the petrol. By that standard, it was a win-win purchase. A more realistic comparison would be to the Jazz Executive Automatic, which costs about R18,000 less than the hybrid version. My calculations show that for urban driving, with an average petrol price of R13 a litre, the Hybrid can make up that difference at the pump within two years of driving 20,000 kms per year. (I didn’t take the time value of money into account in this calculation; you wouldn’t charge Mother Earth interest, would you?) Personally, I got such a good deal on a hybrid demo that the hybrid cost less than the Executive Automatic.
Savings on your petrol bill will not overcome a very large price differential, however. If you are choosing between an inexpensive, efficient non-hybrid and a new hybrid, the reduced consumption will probably never compensate for paying an extra R50,000 or more.
Purchasing a hybrid is not purely about saving money at the pump. In fact, if that’s all you hope to get out of a hybrid, you’ve sort of missed the point. Hybrids use a little less fuel and create a lot less pollution. For an example, I took a look at the British government’s wonderful Car Fuel Data website. Comparing a 2013 Honda Jazz 1.4 i-VTECH with the latest Jazz Hybrid, it shows that the hybrid creates less than 1/5th of the carbon monoxide, the gas that gives headaches to drivers stuck in traffic jams and impairs breathing. The hybrid cuts emissions of smog-producing hydrocarbons and nitrogen oxides by a 1/3rd and a 1/6th, respectively. None of these benefits offer any payback, of course, but neither does a sunroof or leather trim. The personal benefits are psychological. I feel a little better knowing that my car is fouling the air less.
That doesn’t mean that I think everyone has to drive a hybrid. Many new technologies are improving the efficiency and emissions of non-hybrid petrol cars. Simply check the carbon dioxide emissions on the windscreen sticker of all new vehicles to compare. The easiest and cheapest way to reduce fuel consumption and emissions is obviously to choose a smaller car or a smaller engine. It costs nothing up front. The savings are instantaneous and ongoing.
Can’t you accomplish the same thing in a diesel?
If you mean making the air safer to breathe, definitely not. Information on the ugly side of diesel in South Africa can be found here and here. Diesel cars are appropriate for rural, open roads, but they are a problem in cities. Just watch the tailpipes of vehicles pulling away when the traffic light turns green and you will know why. Diesels also take longer to warm up, making them less efficient for short hops. In urban driving, a hybrid is far superior in emissions and often better for fuel consumption.
Don’t the batteries wear out, costing you a fortune?
This is a very reasonable question, given the experience we all have with failing car and cellphone batteries. But current hybrids use nickel-metal hydride (NiMH) batteries, which have far greater longevity than the lead-acid starter batteries in cars or the lithium-ion batteries in cellphones and laptops. A good article on the durability of hybrid batteries comes to the following conclusion: “Even with the first round of hybrids reaching their tenth birthday, those big batteries are still hanging in there.”
My hybrid is brand new, so I have no personal experience on this subject, but if you want to read the appraisals of those who have driven their Toyota Priuses for more than 160,000 kms, you can check out the 100,000-Mile Club on PriusChat.com. It’s difficult to find complaints about battery longevity on that forum.
Regarding the cost: yes, a full set of new batteries is very expensive. For that reason Toyota offers long-term warranties to ease the concerns of buyers. The hybrid Toyota Yaris, for example, comes with an eight-year/195,000 km warranty on the batteries. In other countries, Honda has also been very generous with hybrid battery warranties, even retroactively extending the guarantee on some previously purchased vehicles to an astounding 11 years or 220,000 kms, after some bad press over battery failures in the 2009 Hybrid Civic. Disappointingly, Honda South Africa does not offer its hybrid customers anything more than the standard three-year/100,000 km warranty, unless they purchase an extended warranty.