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Hybrid vs. Diesel: which is the Savings Champ?

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On: Fri, May 17, 2013 at 9:41AM | By: Bill Wilson

Hybrid vs. Diesel: which is the Savings Champ?

The average price for unleaded gas has been over three dollars a gallon since late 2010, and, despite recent drops, chances are good that gasoline will remain pricey for the foreseeable future. Because of this, millions of motorists across the country are showing keen interest in vehicles that promise better mileage for each drop of fuel, and automakers have been busy offering models to meet this demand.

Leading the way are gas/electric hybrid vehicles like the Toyota Prius and Chevy Volt, which can drive 50+ miles on a single gallon of gas. Backed by aggressive marketing campaigns and government tax credits, it seems clear that hybrids are the way to go for anyone who wants to save money at the pump.

But are the claims about hybrids true? Many motorists say that diesels actually offer better fuel economy, along with increased reliability and lower costs of ownership. Volkswagen has led the way among major automakers in reaching out to these drivers, offering diesel engines with seven of its current vehicles. For budget-conscious Americans, the important question is: which option leads to the most savings?

Answering that isn't as easy as simply comparing MPG between vehicles. It means taking into account a host of different factors, including sticker prices, the cost of gas vs. diesel, and the driving habits of individual motorists. Fortunately, auto industry analysts have crunched the numbers, coming up with straightforward answers for drivers looking to save as much as possible. Here are the facts:

• In a simple cost-per-gallon comparison, hybrids come out on top. For example, Toyota Prius owners can expect to get 51 miles per gallon highway, 48 city. On the other hand, VW's most fuel-efficient diesel model is the Passat, which averages 43 miles per gallon on the highway. The additional eight miles per gallon offered by the Toyota means significant savings on fuel costs, especially when factoring in diesel's higher cost.

• This advantage is offset, however, by the cost difference between hybrids and diesels. Going back to the Prius/Passat comparison, the Toyota can easily cost over $30,000 with the addition of a few basic options, while a comparably equipped Passat will cost around $5,000 less. And both vehicles are eligible for a federal tax credit of up to $3,400.

• Diesel engines are renowned for their ability to go the distance. It's not uncommon for owners to rack up in excess of 200,000+ miles on their vehicles. On the other hand, hybrids are dependent upon expensive battery packs, which are usually rated for slightly over 100,000 miles before they need replacement. This expense alone can set the owner back in excess of $5,000.

• City drivers generally come out ahead fuel-wise with hybrids, due to features like regenerative braking that help to keep the battery pack fully charged. On the other hand, long-distance drivers generally do better with diesels, which operate with peak efficiency when they're on wide open roads with few stops.

• The bottom line: if you're a city driver, or someone who does a lot of stop-and-go driving, then a hybrid is probably your best bet. On the other hand, if you spend a lot of time on the highway, then you're better off with a diesel. And, no matter which you choose, you'll enjoy significant fuel cost savings compared to most gas-powered vehicles. And that, as they say, is that.


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